Farmer Bob Echter proposes his land to help city meet its housing needs

Land originally proposed for heavily debated marijuana cultivation in Encinitas could now be considered to help the city reach its state-mandated housing requirements.

The Encinitas City Council considered 26 sites to be studied and potentially zoned for the city’s Housing Element Update at its meeting Nov. 8. No formal decisions were made, but the council is looking at the possibility of adding Bob Echter’s Dramm and Echter Inc. Farm to the list of sites for an “agrihood” — essentially eliminating Echter’s original proposal of growing marijuana on his land to help his business thrive.

Echter promoted this idea at the meeting during a public comment period. “This is an old idea made new again,” Echter said of the agrihoods, which are neighborhoods built around farms. The re-zoning would help his farm with a declining industry and higher labor costs, he said.

The project, which was supported by the Leichtag Foundation, would also take marijuana cultivation off the table for Echter’s site, Echter said. He originally looked to cultivate marijuana on a portion of his land to help his business thrive. The council grappled with how to regulate marijuana in Encinitas since February before deciding last month to take the cultivation issue to the voters in the November 2018 election.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear and council members Joe Mosca and Tasha Boerner-Horvath appeared to like the idea of Encinitas having an agrihood, thus helping the city preserve its agricultural heritage. However, Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz and Council member Mark Muir were hesitant and believed the land could be better used for other uses, like a visitors’ lodge.

“The city and my business are at a particular juncture to meet demands,” Echter said, adding the land could be 50-percent agricultural and 50-percent residential.

Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County without a Housing Element, a required document that spells out how a city proposes to rework its zoning to accommodate its future housing needs, particularly those of low-income people, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. The city’s original plan, which it is still working off of, was created in the 1990s.

Since February, a Housing Element Update Task Force — consisting of Mayor Catherine Blakespear; Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz; Planning Commissioner and former No on Measure T spokesperson Bruce Ehlers; and former planning commissioner Kurt Groseclose — has been working to get Encinitas into compliance with state housing laws.

The other parcels discussed were divided among Encinitas’ five communities, including five parcels in Cardiff, six in Leucadia, three in New Encinitas, six in Old Encinitas and six in Olivenhain. The parcels would equate 1,366 high-density units for all income levels throughout the city. State law currently mandates Encinitas should zone for 1,093 high-density units, according to city officials.

The sites presented were comprised of five vacant, eight underutilized and 13 developed areas of land. The “developed” category included parcels from Measure T, the city’s last attempt at getting a state-certified housing element.

Vacant and underutilized sites are the “ripest fruit on the tree” to the HCD, Barquist said, because of the stronger likelihood that they could be developed.

Another discussed site was a former “burn site,” at 135 El Camino Real, behind the sheriff’s station, where trash was once burned and is now owned by the county. Residents near that property have shared concerns that upzoning the location could mean people use their neighborhood as a shortcut around already-existing traffic, causing more congestion in the area.

The council decided to continue looking at the property but proceeded with caution as it could be costly to make the site appropriate for residential use.

The task force members said it was important to note that no sites were being eliminated or added yet, and the process was still in the “early stages.” The council is looking at the possibility of having residents vote on the housing element in the November 2018 election, which would mean the project would need to be complete by the summer.

The council also agreed to allow Kimley-Horn, the consultant the city hired to help develop its housing element, to revise its scope and costs due to “project complexity, need for expediting, new state laws and highly engaged public process,” according to a city staff report.

The task force and council will meet again in the near future to look more closely at sites and vote on which ones they were most interested in studying further. The groups will also discuss how the task force should move forward with the HCD, including a possible meeting in Sacramento.

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