An "agrihood" development option that proposes to combine Encinitas' fondness for farmland preservation with its need for higher-density housing could be used as a poster child in the effort to win voter approval for a citywide housing plan this fall.
Support for adding the new proposal into the housing ballot measure appears to be growing. A majority of the Encinitas City Council expressed support for the idea Jan. 10, as did about a half-dozen public speakers.
"This is something where you could really rally support for the Housing Element," Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath said, noting that the city has received dozens of emails and letters in favor of the proposal since it was first unveiled late last year.
The rough, tentative proposal calls for rezoning about half of a 21-acre, flower-growing parcel at Quail Gardens Drive and Leucadia Boulevard, so that it could contain about 250 high-density homes. Plans call for the remaining land to be transformed into a community-focused farming operation that would serve the needs of the new residents.
It's one variation of an "agrihood" — a growing, national movement that combines new homes with farm crops and livestock production. More than 100 agrihoods exist nationally, with the nearest in Rancho Mission Viejo. Business magazine articles have recently described agrihoods as the next likely big housing development trend, saying they could well replace the once-popular golf course as a key project amenity.
Bob Echter, owner of the flower-growing company Dramm & Echter Inc., initially put forward his Encinitas agrihood proposal in early November as a replacement option for his previous controversial plan to commercially grow marijuana on part of his land. After much public outcry about the marijuana idea, the City Council decided in October to put the matter up for a public vote in 2018 and Echter then backed away from it.
His willingness Jan. 10 to tweak his new proposal and consider signing a memorandum of understanding with the city barring marijuana-growing on the agrihood farmland areas and upping the number of low-income houses on the other part of the property are reasons to support it, Boerner Horvath and Mayor Catherine Blakespear said.
Blakespear, who has been an advocate of other urban farming projects in the past, said the new agrihood concept was something that she could get excited about. Councilman Joe Mosca agreed, saying that including it in the housing planning document was something that he could "say yes to."
Councilmen Tony Kranz and Mark Muir disagreed, saying the city should hold off and come up with a new zoning plan for all its agriculturally zoned land in the Encinitas Ranch region, rather than picking off one prime piece and allowing homes to go there.
Muir said he was stunned that the council majority was willing to allow homes to go on agricultural land and noted that several people who live near the Echter property oppose this new housing proposal as well as the old marijuana one. Kranz said he believes part of the property might be better suited for a hotel project, noting that Encinitas is lacking in hotel rooms.
"The leadership that I think we need to display as the council is to continue the conversation," Kranz said, adding that he considers accepting the agrihood proposal a "short-sighted" decision that could doom the housing plan document, which has already failed once at the ballot box.
Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County and one of just a few cities in the state that doesn't have a current, state-certified Housing Element — a state-mandated document that spells out how a city proposes to accommodate its future housing needs, particularly those of low-income residents.
The city has been sued several times because of its lack of a plan and city officials have attempted multiple times to resolve the situation. The most recent proposal was the Measure T plan, which the city's voters rejected in November 2016. After it failed, the council created an ad-hoc committee and asked it to revise Measure T and create something more palatable that could go before voters this November.
The committee is looking into upzoning various properties in all five of the city's communities to accommodate about 1,600 new homes -- thus meeting the state's target and having a several-hundred-unit buffer in case some properties are not developed with as many homes as forecasted.
On Jan. 10, council members and the ad-hoc committee reviewed many potential housing sites and ended up with a tentative list of sites that could accommodate a total of nearly 1,900 units. Next, they plan to fine-tune that list and eliminate some sites.
The council is expected to approve the final list this summer and voters are expected to have their say on the plan in November.
--Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune