At an Oct. 5 Encinitas City Council and Mayoral candidate forum — hosted by the Olivenhain Town Council at its historic meeting hall — much of the discussion was hyper local as members of the 75-person audience submitted questions that focused on the eastern area of Encinitas.
The most hotly contested issue on this night, however, was a property outside of Olivenhain, the Pacific View School site downtown, which was purchased from the Encinitas Union School District by the city of Encinitas for $10 million in 2014.
Still sitting vacant as it is being cleaned up by volunteers, the property is intended to house the Pacific View Academy of the Arts, which will be created and run by the Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance (EACEA).
Some of the candidates for city council — there are five running for three spots — and mayoral hopeful Paul Gaspar, cited the $10 million deal as an example of recent financial missteps by the city.
“To me, it is very important to be fiscally responsible with your money,” current city council member Mark Muir, who is running for re-election, told the audience. “I voted against (buying) Pacific View and the reason I voted against Pacific View was the cost. It was priced at $3.3 million and we paid $10 million for it so I don’t think it was a good use of public funds.”
Two candidates who don’t currently hold public office — Gaspar and council hopeful Phil Graham, a former businessman who left his job to conduct his campaign, agreed with Muir.
“As a fiscally responsible person my entire life, what I want to do when I get on the council is make sure we are not wasting tax dollars,” said Graham, who later added that he was against the Pacific View purchase.
“I’d like to go in there and really audit the city and say ‘Where are we spending our money, let’s spend it more wisely and let’s make sure we have money in reserve in case the economy goes down or if we need something in the future.’”
Tony Kranz, Muir’s colleague on the council who voted for the purchase in 2014, took time from his answer to a different question to support that council decision.
“The city had an obligation under state law to rezone the property as residential and the school district did an appraisal as residential and it was worth $12.5 million,” Kranz explained, adding that the other figures came from some appraisals done under other zoning conditions to be used as a bargaining tool.
Gaspar’s opponent for mayor, current city council member Catherine Blakespear, wasn’t on the council for that vote, but nevertheless voiced her opinion that it was the correct decision.
“I very much support (the purchase) and the reason is, when you look at the things in our community that are beloved now, they are things like the Encinitas Community Park … the Senior and Community Center or our City Hall. Those are all things that had to be purchased at some point and are gathering places for our community that we love,” Blakespear said. “So that site was either going to be something that the city bought, that will have as an art center that will be vibrant and a gem, or it would be a subdivision or a hotel, most likely a subdivision.
“We have enough housing in Encinitas, we don’t need to have two and a half acres on a bluff, that has been in the public domain for 100 years, be a subdivision.”
Despite the fiscal disagreement, now that the deal is no longer in question nearly all of the candidates expressed a desire to make the site the best it can be going forward. Muir, Kranz, Blakespear and Gaspar’s wife Kristin Gaspar — the current Encinitas Mayor — have all helped with volunteer cleanup, as have some of the other candidates.
“We’ve heard a lot about the controversy about it being purchased, but the reality is, the city purchased it,” said Planning Commissioner Tasha Boerner Horvath, a candidate for city council, “and it is up to this council and the next council to make it into that great amenity that makes our downtown Encinitas even more special.”
Boerner’s colleague on the Planning Commission and fellow council candidate Tony Brandenburg, a 50-year Olivenhain resident who had his wedding in the same meeting hall the forum was conducted, was a crowd favorite, not just because of his local roots — Graham also spent seven years living in Olivenhain were he was a horse owner and Kranz reminisced about his high school senior picnic in the park just outside the hall — but because the former Chief Judge of the Intertribal Court of Southern California reiterated his lack of support for Measure T, the Housing Element Update supported by all of the other candidates.
He also had criticism of the current council’s handling of the Pacific View situation.
“I’m a bit of a starving artist myself … so to make it a culture arts center, to me, is wonderful,” Brandeburg said. “But if the present city council members don’t know what’s going on …
“Let’s move it along and get it done.”
Paul Gaspar, who several times gave short answers to questions not wanting to repeat what others had said, was perhaps most spirited when the issue was brought up of Encinitas being the target of lawsuits related to housing density.
“Obviously, development is not a popular thing in our community, however. there have been some very irresponsible things that have been said on the (city council) dais that draw attention to our community. There have been some decisions that have been made, particularly about the density bonus, that have drawn attention,” Gaspar said. “We are up against a big force up there in Sacramento. We are up against affordable housing advocates, we are up against the majority party, the minority party and developers. That’s a very potent coalition.
“We need a new strategy on this … because we are going to get beaten on this if we keep drawing attention to ourselves. People are going to look to make an example of us.”
Next week, Gaspar and Blakespear will take center stage at a Mayoral candidate forum on Oct. 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. Then on Oct. 18, the five city council candidates will discuss the issues from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Those two forums, sponsored by the Leucadia-Encinitas Town Council and run by the League of Women Voters, are at the Encinitas Library.