Clock is ticking for Encinitas council to decide housing's fate

After heavy debate for the last year-and-a-half and a gridlocked last meeting, the Encinitas City Council must now make its decision on one of its most pressing issues two days before the county’s deadline to qualify for the November election.

The city will have to lock in its housing element update and the ordinance’s wording for the ballot at its next meeting on Aug. 8. The county registrar must receive all measures for the Nov. 6 election by Aug. 10.

Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County without a state-mandated housing element, a legal document that spells out how a city proposes to rework its zoning to accommodate its future housing needs, particularly those of low-income people.

The city has been the subject of three lawsuits regarding the lack of its document, which hasn't been updated since 1999. In April, Superior Court Judge Ronald Frazier granted Encinitas an extension until after the November election to rule on whether the city has failed to comply with state law and whether it should be forced to adopt a previously written plan.

Encinitas’ last attempt at a housing element, Measure T, failed in the November 2016 election. The current proposed plan is the city’s third since 2012.

The council was due to make its decision on the state-mandated document at its July 18 meeting, which called for a second reading of an ordinance originally approved 3-2 on June 20. However, the legislative body failed to reach a majority decision July 18, with the council evenly split 2-2 on the matter. Council members Tony Kranz and Joe Mosca urged for the housing element to be submitted as-is for the ballot, while Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Council member Tasha Boerner Horvath said they could not agree with potential legal issues as a result of the document. The council's fifth member, Mark Muir, was absent from the meeting but voted in favor of the document as-is at the council's June 20 meeting.

Because of that disagreement July 18, the council must now make its decision at its next meeting, Aug. 8, to submit an ordinance in time for the November ballot.

According to the city's website, the following properties are currently up for zoning consideration, yielding a total of 1,504 units throughout the city’s five communities:

  • Greek Church Site
  • Cannon Property
  • Encinitas Boulevard and Quail Gardens Sites
  • Armstrong Parcels
  • Jackel Property
  • Rancho Santa Fe parcels on Gaffney/Goodsen
  • Echter Property
  • Sunshine Gardens
  • Sage Canyon Parcel
  • Baldwin & Sons Properties
  • Vulcan and La Costa Site
  • Seacoast Church
  • Manchester Avenue West Sites
  • Harrison Sites
  • Meyer Proposal

With the housing element as-is, Boerner Horvath argued the city might not meet a requirement that at least 51 percent of sites be on vacant land and also feared the city would not have a strong enough buffer. Encinitas must zone for 1,141 more homes, a 6.4 percent increase from the city’s existing 25,000 homes. The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and legal counsel have additionally recommended a buffer of about 450 homes to allow for possible future changes.

But Kranz has argued the housing element as-is, which eliminated several resident-contested sites since January 2017 when the council first began discussing the document, is the city's "best shot" at getting approved by the voters. But the HCD warned in a June 12 letter that removing sites could mean Encinitas not meeting the required number of sites.

"It's important that we have something on the ballot for the voters to consider because we made a commitment to a judge," Kranz said. "In the end, I suspect if the voters approve it, HCD would also find it compliant."

Over the last year-and-a-half, residents have packed city council chambers late into the night, advocating for and disapproving of proposed sites, height restrictions and other elements of the document.

One of the most contested properties — a 7.6-acre, city-owned site best known as L-7 and located at 634 Quail Gardens Lane — was removed in mid-April following complaints from neighbors of the nearby Quail Gardens neighborhood. Those residents complained of an oversaturation of affordable housing in the area.

But Blakespear and Boerner Horvath argued L-7 was the only piece of city-owned, residential land available and therefore the city's "only real shot" at getting deed-restricted affordable units. The mayor added she was concerned the vote would add credibility to existing litigation against the city.

Then at its June 20 meeting, the council voted 3-2, with Blakespear and Boerner Horvath dissenting, to remove several properties disapproved by residents and the HCD.

In its June 12 letter, HCD recommended to the city council to not consider the Armstrong parcels on El Camino Real in New Encinitas, the El Camino Real south parcel in New Encinitas and the Dewitt property at 1900 North Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia. The state agency cited ongoing uses at the sites, lack of owner interest and environmental concerns as possible constraints. But Kranz, who made the motion, argued the Armstrong parcels should be kept on the list, while the other two should be removed.

In addition to the elimination of the El Camino Real South parcel and Dewitt property, Kranz also recommended removing the former Frog's Gym site at 780 Garden View Court and a site on Rancho Santa Fe East in Olivenhain, with Mosca and Muir agreeing. Both added sites received strong vocal opposition from residents at the meeting.

At that June 20 meeting, Blakespear advocated for adopting HCD's recommended plan. She added that the council will have to revisit the housing element in 2020 to adhere to updated state standards.

"We have to start biting at this apple because we have to realize 2,000 more units will come to us in months," she urged her colleagues.

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