In her first year as the mayor of Encinitas, Catherine Blakespear saw improvements to the city's views toward certain issues and its commitment to engaging all residents, even if their views differed.
She said she has noticed a "cultural change" at city hall in regard to a new approach to mobility issues.
"All of the issues around biking and walking in the city, I think we've turned a corner on the city's understanding of the problem and interest in tackling it," she said. "I say that from the perspective of someone who spent four years on the city's Traffic and Public Safety Commission and two years on the city council. I'm very proud, relieved and excited about that change."
Blakespear also said the city has improved its involvement with alleviating the number of homeless people on the streets of Encinitas.
The city spent $100,000 on a housing navigator, which resulted in more than 20 people — previously living on the streets of Encinitas — to be housed.
The city also installed four porta potties and kept some bathrooms open 24 hours to help address a countywide Hepatitis A outbreak.
Because many of the people who have contracted the disease are homeless, there's been a regional movement to make public bathroom facilities available 24 hours a day.
Homelessness in Encinitas was up 25 percent in 2017, with the San Diego County-based Regional Task Force on the Homeless finding 117 people living on the streets or in shelters in the city in January, compared to 93 last year.
"Homelessness is certainly a multi-faceted problem that does not have an easy answer, but we have a close relationship with the Community Resource Center, and we're just doing more in that area," Blakespear said.
City council meetings have also been "less disruptive" this year, even as public officials decided on controversial topics such as marijuana cultivation, developing a state-certified housing element and implementing district elections.
Earlier in the year, Blakespear enforced a policy for people to wave their hands in the air if they liked or disliked an idea, rather than clapping or booing.
"There's so much acrimony at the federal level but I remain hopeful about our democracy because we practice respect locally even while disagreeing on substance," she said.
Looking ahead to 2018, the mayor said Encinitas will face important issues like obtaining a state-certified housing element, having voters decide whether to allow marijuana cultivation, implementing district elections, finalizing the updated Climate Action Plan, creating a vision plan for the rail corridor and continuing with capital improvement projects.
Obtaining a state-certified housing element
The Encinitas City Council and Housing Element Update Task Force will continue exploring options for the city to adopt a voter-approved, state-mandated housing element.
"That remains our highest priority," Blakespear said. "We'll be working on that for at least the first half of the year because we have to get a plan that would be certified for the ballot."
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.
The city's last attempt at a housing element, Measure T, failed in the November 2016 election.
The Housing Element Update Task Force — consisting of Blakespear; Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz; Planning Commissioner and former No on T spokesman Bruce Ehlers; and former Planning Commissioner Kurt Groseclose — has been meeting since February to try to come up with a state-certified housing element.
Blakespear said she is hopeful the council, task force and voters can agree on a housing element to get into compliance with the state. She said she is hopeful the city's new approach of hearing the opposing views of residents will allow the city to come up with a more agreeable plan.
"Our new approach includes embracing the engaged and vocal community members who were opposed to previous plans and trying to move together," the mayor said. "I'm hopeful that will result in a plan that the community will support, but, regardless, I think it will result in a plan that's better for the community. At some point, we will have a housing plan, and it will either be accomplished by the voters passing it or a court ordering us to adopt one. Our position as a city is defending Prop A. They want to vote on upzoning, and we're defending that."
Voting whether to allow marijuana cultivation
Blakespear expects the voters to also decide in the November 2018 election whether or not the city should zone the community's five agricultural properties for growing marijuana.
"That's another thing we'll have to wrap up by June," she said. "There are a lot of nuances and details that will need to take place in regard to marijuana cultivation and housing."
Since the passing of Prop. 64 — which passed in Encinitas by 65 percent and legalized the recreational use of marijuana in California in November 2016 — the Encinitas City Council has grappled with how to regulate marijuana.
Farmer Bob Echter, of Dramm and Echter, Inc., pushed for most of 2017 to allow cultivation on a portion of his 800,000-square-foot land to help offset a declining industry and high labor costs. The council in October agreed to ban all marijuana activity until the voters decide cultivation's fate in the 2018 election, thus maintaining the city’s status quo.
At past city council and Adult Use of Marijuana Act subcommittee meetings, proponents and opponents have spent hours sharing ideas about how marijuana should be handled in Encinitas. Those in favor of cultivation said they wanted to support farmers, like Echter. They have also said they thought the issue of cultivation was already decided as part of Prop. 64. Opponents, however, have urged the council to not allow marijuana in the city to prevent access for children, crime, more DUIs and possible negative effects on property values.
Implementing district elections
Beginning in November, residents will vote on one council member based on the area they live in.The city council in November sealed a decision to move the city to four districts in a map submitted by council member Tasha Boerner Horvath.
The approved map divides the city into four districts with an elected mayor. Representatives for districts three and four, as well as an at-large mayor, would be voted on in 2018, and districts one and two would be decided in 2020. Because of this, Council members Mark Muir and Joe Mosca will have to run in the 2018 election.
Blakespear said she is hopeful future council members will remain dedicated to the entire city, and not just their district.
"It depends on the individual council people how they approach their job," she said. "Are they narrowly focused on their district or are they interested in being engaged with residents throughout the whole city? So far, the current council in just the last couple weeks seems to have retained an interest in engaging with the whole community, and I don't know if we've had a lot of opportunities to see that play out."
She said multiple council members attended the recent Christmas tree lighting, even though the event took place in a specific district. But, she said, it will be difficult to see where council members’ or candidates’ alliances lay until campaign season.
Currently, Encinitas residents are asked to vote for two at-large candidates for city council and one candidate for mayor every two years. In the past, the mayor was a rotating position.
In August, the city council declared its intent to move toward district elections to avoid litigation.
The city received a letter July 20 from Santa Monica-based attorney Kevin Shenkman, who threatened to sue the city if it did not move to district elections.
In his four-page letter, Shenkman said Encinitas is diluting the votes of minorities with its current at-large election system, thus violating the state’s Voting Rights Act of 2001.
He also accused Encinitas of being discriminatory against Latinos, saying the city has a long history of hostility toward Latinos as evidenced by the fact that its first mayor repeatedly made racist statements during council meetings in the late 1980s.
Finalizing the updated Climate Action Plan
Blakespear also expects the city to finalize the Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2018, following a series of meetings in which residents shared their thoughts about ways to improve the local climate.
"We haven't had a Climate Action that had implementation steps," the mayor said. "It was much more aspirational, and this will be specifically focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and understanding specifically what our baseline was and what our goals are."
The last time Encinitas updated its CAP was in 2011. Since then, new methods for calculating emissions have been developed, according to the city. There have also been advances in technology and public policy.
"The city’s new Climate Action Plan will differ from the 2011 plan in that it will be a goal-oriented plan," according to the city website. "In the new plan, the city will commit to implementing specific programs and projects aimed at reducing and mitigating the impacts of GHG emitting activities by targeted dates. The new plan will be California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) qualified and will satisfy the CEQA requirements for greenhouse gas impact analysis for new development."
The plan is to update the CAP every five years and produce monitoring reports and emissions inventory every two years.
Adaptations will be made to prepare for sea level rise and erosion; increased temperature and more extreme heat events; increased precipitation and water supply uncertainty; and increased wildfire and flood risk.
The city's CAP focuses on proposed reduction strategies, such as building efficiency; renewable energy; clean and efficient transportation; water efficiency; zero waste; reducing off-road equipment; and carbon sequestration. Each strategy is broken up into its own list of goals.
Creating a vision plan for the rail corridor
Work is expected to conclude in 2018 in regard to the Coastal Mobility and Livability Study.
The project, initiated in 2016, includes improvements to the rail corridor, parking and active transportation.
Blakespear said she was especially looking forward to enhancements to the rail corridor.
"I think that will be really important for us because we want to have quiet zones and more crossings throughout the whole corridor," she said. "Having a corridor-wide plan, instead of piecemealing these projects, is really ideal."
Continuing with capital improvement projects
The city is also expected to finalize several capital improvement projects around the city in the new year.
"We're lucky to be able to have the finances to improve our community," Blakespear said. "I feel grateful for that reality and for our wise, prudent budgeting and our forward-looking approach."
The Leucadia Streetscape, which will enhance the North Coast Highway 101 corridor, is slated to begin, and a design for the El Portal Undercrossing is also slated to be finished.
There will also be improvements to Birmingham Drive, including a roundabout west of the I-5.
The city will also begin working on the temporarily named, 3.1-acre, $2.7 million "Standard Pacific Park," which will be located east of the I-5 freeway on the southeast corner of Olympus and Piraeus streets.
City staff has said the park, which could open in April 2019, could include amenities like a zip line; dog park; multiple playgrounds — including a bug-themed area with oversized structures that will make "kids feel like they've been shrunk" and one that incorporates the hillside — a multi-use sport court for games like pickleball and basketball; a "pump track" for scooters, bikes and skateboards; interactive public art; several shade structures and botanical plants.
Improvements to Beacon's Beach — including the reconstruction of the parking lot with new striping and parking on Neptune Avenue, as well as a new stairway — will also be made.
The city will also continue painting green bike lanes throughout the community to allow for the city to become friendlier to bicyclists.
Regionally, the I-5 widening, double-tracking of the rail corridor and restoring the San Elijo Lagoon will also continue.
"Those are major infrastructure projects that are happening in our city," Blakespear said.