Del Mar Planning Commission urges reconsideration of failed zoning amendment

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

Del Mar’s Planning Commission unanimously urged the Del Mar City Council to reconsider a zoning amendment that would help the city provide an estimated 20 affordable housing units out of more than 100 that are required by a state housing mandate.

Council members failed to approve the amendment last week. In the meantime, the city’s housing element is noncompliant with state law.

“I just don’t see any other way forward,” Planning Commissioner Don Countryman said during a Sept. 15 online meeting. “I think we’re going to pay the price heavily if we don’t do that.”

The amendment would have fulfilled a commitment the city made as part of the state’s fifth Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle, spanning from 2013 to 2021.

Cities throughout the state are required to update their housing elements at the beginning of each RHNA cycle to show they have the zoning to accommodate their assigned shares of new housing, which includes units for all income levels. The construction is left to private developers.

Part of Del Mar’s plan was to upzone nearly 16 acres off Jimmy Durante Boulevard, zoned as North Commercial, to allow 20 dwelling units per acre. But Del Mar did not meet a 2015 deadline to legally enact that upzone. To avoid penalties over the last several years, the city worked with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) on an extended timeframe. The two sides eventually had an understanding that it would get done in September, according to a letter from HCD to the city.

Instead, Del Mar’s city staff has to buy more time with HCD to rectify its housing element before the state decertifies it, levies fines, brings litigation, takes away local control over new development or imposes other potential consequences.

HCD spokesperson Alicia Murillo said via email that decertifying Del Mar’s housing element or getting the state attorney general involved are two options under consideration.

“The Department is aware of the lack of recent action (by the Del Mar City Council) and is in the process of collecting information to determine next steps,” Murillo said.

Failure to adopt the North Commercial amendment also creates uncertainty heading into the sixth RHNA cycle, which runs from 2021 to 2029. Del Mar’s housing element has to account for 163 units of all income levels, plus 12 affordable units that carried over from the fifth RHNA cycle because they were unaccounted for. Of those 175 total units, 113 need to be affordable.

The city projects about 20 of those 113 affordable units can be provided over the next eight years by the North Commercial amendment. If approved, the city also projects about 81 to 111 total housing units would be built on North Commercial land over that timeframe.

On Oct. 5, the City Council will be asked to approve the new housing element with another commitment to upzone the North Commercial parcels. A second attempt at getting council approval for the necessary zoning amendment would follow at a later date.

Without the North Commercial upzone, those units might have to be shifted to the city’s north bluff, where voters recently denied a luxury hotel project that would have included 22 affordable housing units, or South Stratford properties.

The North Commercial zoning amendment faltered on Sept. 8, when City Council members were presented with two zoning amendments that would have accommodated at least 23 affordable housing units.

The council unanimously approved one amendment likely to add at least three affordable housing units on Camino del Mar, between 8th and 9th streets. The four affected parcels of land are zoned as Professional Commercial.

But only three of five council members voted in favor of a prerequisite Community Plan amendment that would have made the North Commercial zoning amendment possible; Community Plan amendments need four votes. If it had passed by at least 4-1, the zoning amendment would have been able to pass with a simple majority in a subsequent vote. Del Mar Deputy Mayor Terry Gaasterland and City Councilman Dave Druker voted against it after expressing concerns about environmental impacts and the potential for obtrusive new development.

During the council meeting, Druker said he wants to add residential units on the North Commercial parcels, but not 20 units per acre. City staff said that the density requirement was a state order.

Moments before the vote, Del Mar Principal Planner Amanda Lee said that new development from the zoning amendments would be comparable in size to existing multi-unit structures in town. She warned that failure to move forward with both North Commercial and Professional Commercial zoning amendments would make it “really difficult to see how the city will get out of this mess.”

According to a city staff report, developers can file lawsuits against cities that don’t have state-approved housing elements. The state could also fine Del Mar up to $100,000 per month, impose stricter four-year housing element cycles (instead of the normal eight-year cycles) and limit the city’s ability to deny multi-unit housing projects.

Gaasterland, who serves on the council’s housing subcommittee, said she thinks HCD officials will be open to further discussion before levying any penalties on the city. She also said she wanted more time to explore alternative options to add the necessary housing units.

“The disproportion of this was profound,” she said in a phone interview, referring to the proposed North Commercial zoning amendment. “Any credible, reasonable person at HCD, I would hope, would be open to the idea of figuring out what would suffice and letting Del Mar do it in a way that is good for Del Mar.”

City Councilman Dwight Worden, the other council member on the housing subcommittee, said during the council meeting that alternative options had been considered since 2013, when the fifth RHNA cycle began.

“If anybody feels that the (plan to amend North Commercial and Professional Commercial zoning) really was not the right way to go about this, they had seven years to bring in an alternative proposal to show how the Community Plan should be amended to do something different,” he said.

Mayor Ellie Haviland added that the city had done enough due diligence on the North Commercial zoning amendment.

“I also want to be crystal clear, it is the right thing to do for our city to add affordable housing,” she said. “Our city will be richer when we’re more diverse.”