Encinitas adopts modified housing plan to comply with court order

Just weeks from a court-ordered deadline of April 11, the Encinitas City Council unanimously voted Wednesday to adopt a controversial plan detailing how it will handle its future housing needs.

"To me, we don't have any options here; we have our back against the wall," Mayor Catherine Blakespear said before making the motion to adopt the plan.

Next up will be winning state approval for the document and resolving two pending lawsuits against the city.

The city's contentious, multi-year battle over this proposed housing plan will likely be repeated in the years to come, Councilman Tony Kranz said just before the council's vote. He noted that this document only covers the current housing cycle. A new plan will be required by the state for the period that begins in 2022.

"This will probably get much harder as we move forward," he said, noting that the city doesn't have many vacant properties left that can accommodate additional housing and the ones designated as housing sites in the current plan were often extremely controversial.

Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County that lacks a valid, state-certified housing plan, a state-mandated document known as a Housing Element, which spells out how a city proposes to handle its housing needs, particularly those of low-income residents.

The city's lack of a current plan has been the source of multiple lawsuits. In December, a Superior Court judge handling two lawsuits -- one by the Building Industry Association of San Diego and one by the housing advocacy group San Diego Tenants United -- ordered the city to get in compliance with state law within 120 days.

In order to accomplish this task, the judge directed the city to temporarily exempt itself from the requirements of the city's growth-control regulations, which require Encinitas to win voter approval for any proposals that increase zoning density or height.

Prior to that court directive, the city had tried twice to win voter approval for housing plan proposals. The most recent of these was the Measure U proposal, which the city's voters rejected in November. That plan proposed up-zoning 15 privately owned properties, allowing their owners to exceed city height limits and put 25 to 30 housing units an acre on their properties.

The plan the council adopted Wednesday night is a modified version of the Measure U plan, which the city reworked in recent weeks under a directive from state housing officials who said it didn't go far enough to meet the city's likely housing needs.

Changes in the modified plan that the council approved Wednesday night include:

  • Bumping up the building height limit by two feet. Measure U had called for a height limit of 33 feet for a flat-roofed, three-story buildings, and 37 feet for a pitched-roof structure. The revised standard will be 35 feet for flat roofs and 39 feet for pitched roofs.
  • Changing a city calculation system so that more housing units could be allowed on a property. Under this modification, private access roads, parking lots and driveways would be considered part of a site's gross acreage.

Before the vote, the council heard from six public speakers, five of whom opposed adopting the modified Measure U plan. Three of the opponents said they lived in the city's Avocado Acres area east of Interstate 5 and they wanted the city to remove a property in their neighborhood from the housing list. The other two people said they opposed the council's move to adopt the entire revised plan without getting voter approval for it, saying the city should be required to follow the provisions of its growth-control ordinance, known as Proposition A.

One of the two, former Encinitas Mayor Sheila Cameron, said it wasn't Prop. A's fault the city had failed twice to win voter approval for a housing plan; it was city officials' fault for not putting together good plans that voters could support.

"If you fix the plans, the problem is solved,” she said. “Leave Prop. A out of it."

The lone proponent of the council's move was Bob Kent, one of the leaders of the low-income housing advocacy group Keys for Homes. Kent said the city desperately needs more housing, and adopting the plan is a "necessary first step" to getting it. The plan may not be perfect, but the city must start moving forward now, he said.

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