Encinitas mediation program looks to calm neighborhood disputes

A soon-to-launch mediation program is designed to diffuse neighborhood and development conflicts before they end up in front of the Encinitas City Council.

The Encinitas council on Dec. 9 unanimously approved the voluntary mediation program for a one-year trial period. During city mediation, opposing sides will meet in private with a trained mediator who will try to guide them toward a mutually acceptable agreement. City staff would then review any compromise to make sure it fits within city regulations.

Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear said too often neighborhood disputes reach the council level, when they could be resolved earlier with different sides sitting down and talking. As an example of where mediation would prove beneficial, Blakespear cited a 2014 council appeal in which neighbors fought over a proposal to convert a garage into a housing unit.

“They had never actually spoken to each other and stood up here and realized on appeal that they weren’t even opposed to each other,” she said.

She listed Coral Tree Farm and Nursery as another example. That lengthy public battle over the farm ended with the council reaffirming the farm’s right to sell produce without special permitting. Once again, the neighbors didn’t talk beforehand, Blakespear stated.

Blakespear said that mediation allows for creative solutions, as opposed to the win-lose rulings of council appeals that result in long-term neighborhood fallout.

“Many of these have been highly confrontational, they’re emotional and pit neighbors against neighbors,” Blakespear said of council appeals.

In the last three years, 18 city decisions have been appealed to the council, draining city staff time, she added.

Blakespear and Councilman Tony Kranz were on the subcommittee that crafted the mediation proposal. The subcommittee originally looked at requiring mediation before a resident could file a council appeal, but switched to a voluntary program after the rest of the council said some residents might not like being forced into mediation.

The program will launch early 2016 and cover two kinds of cases. One type is for development and land-use disputes, and in those instances, the project applicant will pay for all mediation costs.

For general neighborhood conflicts over property lines, blocked views, overhanging trees and more, the city will bear much of the cost, estimated at $750 per mediation.

The subcommittee suggested a free program for disputes among residents. Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer and Mayor Kristin Gaspar said having residents pick up half the $750 cost would make residents value the service and root out those who aren’t really serious about mediation.

Blakespear said such a high fee would discourage participation, and she recommended neighbors pay a $50 fee for general disputes, an amount the council ultimately agreed on.

The city has budgeted $7,750 for the one-year trial period, which will pay for the National Conflict Resolution Center to set up a mediation program and oversee up to six general conflicts. Kranz said although there’s a city cost, the idea is to save money by avoiding council appeals.

Councilman Mark Muir initially expressed concern that mediation could discourage public participation, since mediation is confidential. But he voted in favor after receiving confirmation that any deals reached in mediation would be public record and others would still be able to appeal them.

The council in roughly a year will review the program and decide whether to continue it.

The Encinitas subcommittee’s proposal was modeled after Carlsbad’s mediation program.

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