Proposed housing element a hot topic at forum

Encinitas’ latest attempt toward a state-mandated housing element needs to pass because "it is the law," a proponent of the plan argued. But an opponent contested the proposed measure is more beneficial to developers than it is to residents.

Kurt Groseclose, a former planning commissioner and supporter of the city’s latest housing plan, and Peter Stern, a retired attorney and opponent of the plan, debated how housing in Encinitas should be handled at the first of two related forums on Sept. 13 at the Encinitas Library. The debate was hosted by Engage Encinitas and the Leucadia Town Council. It was moderated by the League of Women Voters.

Groseclose, a 30-year resident who sat on the city's Housing Element Update Task Force, aimed to ensure that votes on the plan, Measure U, are"based on fact and not speculation."

He said state law mandates an approved housing element, and because of Prop A — which residents passed in 2013 to allow more transparency on future zoning — residents must have their say about the plan in the November election.

On Aug. 9, the city council voted 4 to 1 — with Council member Tasha Boerner Horvath dissenting — to approve Measure U, which zones 15 sites across the city for possible future housing. The plan is the city's latest attempt toward a housing element update, a required document that hasn't been updated since the 1990s and spells out how a city proposes to rework its zoning to accommodate future housing, particularly for those of low and very-low incomes. The last attempt, Measure T, failed in the 2016 election.

The city is also the subject of three lawsuits and pending litigation, in which 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.

"Approving U takes it away from the court and puts it back in our hands," Groseclose said.

But Stern, who has also lived in the city for 30 years, argued that Measure U actually "kills" residents' Prop A protections, citing language from the ballot measure that "a vote of the people [would] not constrain the city's compliance with state law."

Further, Stern said he believed even if the voters did not pass Measure U, the judge would not immediately take action and instead request the city work with the people who have been against the last several attempts toward housing.

He touted the plan as "a terrible deal for Encinitas residents [but] a wonderful giveaway for developers."

"Developers get to use 30 units per acre," he said. "Developers get to exceed 35 feet and go as high as 42 feet. Developers get 65 percent lot coverage. Developers get reduced setbacks, reduced parking requirements and profits galore. Where and what are the developers' concessions to the city?"

He added the removal of the L-7 property — a city-owned site that has been described as the city's only shot at 100 percent affordable but was removed by the city council in April — created a "builder's dream," and the plan creates no guarantee for affordable housing. Currently, developers must set aside 15 percent of a project's housing units for low- and very-low income tenants. According to Measure U's text, "additional alternatives to on-site development of affordable housing are being considered, such as payment of an in-lieu fee."

Groseclose argued the city had requested a higher threshold than 15 percent, but HCD denied that request because Encinitas does not have a proven track record of being able to provide anything better.

Groseclose said the city has, so far, not provided more affordable housing because of the in-demand, coastal area it is in. Further, guidelines, such as the average median income, create affordability, he said.

"It's not because of a lack of desire," he said. "It's because of the land costs. ... We cannot dictate what the builders do or don't do. People that own property can do whatever they want with that property within the constraints of the city."

Stern expressed doubts that the plan would provide adequate affordable housing for people such as returning students, seniors and city workers. He also questioned why several sites on Measure U's maps were near Capri Elementary, arguing that many nearby developments would overcrowd the school.

Groseclose said new state laws brought forth at the beginning of the year mandated 51 percent of sites be placed on vacant land, so it was difficult to more evenly distribute the zoning. Further, the removal of L-7 meant more vacant properties had to be found. Originally, the city aimed to spread affordable housing sites throughout all five communities, he said.

Stern argued residents should wait until a better plan is written.

"Let's not choose bad policy and planning just to pass a plan,” he said. “We deserve an intelligent and thoughtful housing plan that serves the residents of Encinitas and not the developers."

Groseclose noted while the plan is not perfect, it's a "compromise" from Measure T and "the best option" the city has.

"Instead of debating details, look at the options," he said. "There is not a better plan."

Engage Encinitas and the Leucadia Town Council also scheduled a similar debate on Measure U on Sept. 16, but the above report only covers the Sept. 13 meeting.

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