Debate intensifies over General Plan

Two residents discuss the benefits of building low-income housing in different locations throughout Encinitas during a General Plan workshop May 14 at the Encinitas Community Center. (Photo by Ernesto Lopez)

Two residents discuss the benefits of building low-income housing in different locations throughout Encinitas during a General Plan workshop May 14 at the Encinitas Community Center. (Photo by Ernesto Lopez)

Ernesto Lopez

Planning for low-income housing has turned out to be a difficult and long process for the city of Encinitas.

State law requires local governments to prepare and adopt a General Plan every 20 years consisting of seven mandatory elements, including housing, which addresses need, improvement, maintenance and development based on projected growth and income groups.

“Development has been historically a source of conflict in many cities around the state,” said Mike Strong, an associate at the Encinitas Planning and Building Department.

This planning period, the city is expected to accommodate 1,300 multifamily units at 30 units per acre; construction is not required.

Most difficulties have risen from the fact that Encinitas does not have adequate zoning to meet housing opportunities for the low and very low income categories.

Case in point, last September a draft of the General Plan was released to the public and the housing element immediately faced criticism from business owners and residents in New Encinitas. They claimed low income units were unreasonably allocated along a small section of El Camino Real, stretching from the Encinitas Commons shopping center north to Big Lots.

A major critic was the recently formed Citizens for Saving New Encinitas. The group collected more than 1,000 signatures from people opposed to the housing plan and went before City Council to voice its concerns.

“We didn’t like the changes to the community we know. It would destroy the character of where we live,” said Duff Pickering, a spokesman for the New Encinitas citizens group.

Some of the concerns were traffic congestion on El Camino Real, increased pollution and school overcrowding with the possibility of 3,000-plus new residents in the area.

“We know city planners have obligations to the state and must submit a plan, however we didn’t like the idea of increased density in our New Encinitas area,” Pickering said.

Another point of anger, according to Pickering, was that city planners did not seem to consult area residents about the housing plan.

“We were shocked at what was presented, but we were more shocked that the city said the plan represented the interest of New Encinitas people,” he said.

Patrick Murphy, the Encinitas director of planning and building, said the original housing plan was mapped taking in mind community input, which was collected over nine workshops held between March and May of 2010.

Each workshop had anywhere from 50 to 100 people, Murphy said.

“(Everybody) had an opportunity to attend the workshops. Mailers were sent out,” he added.

The flier that arrived to resident’s homes read: “The City of Encinitas is updating its general plan, a key document that embodies our city’s future growth and development policy. Workshops have been scheduled to receive public input and develop a vision for each of Encinitas’ five communities.”

“The planning department showed how it doesn’t know much about direct marketing,” said Pickering, who did not attend those workshops. “This was the perfect flier to achieve a low turnout; it said nothing about the possibility of changes in residential zoning along El Camino Real was being considered.”

Murphy said this reaction is “typical.”

“It’s normal for people to say, ‘if it doesn’t affect me I won’t attend,’” he said.

In response to the backlash, the City Council voted to go back to the drawing board by creating a new advisory committee and holding new workshops to get more of the community involved.

During the five workshops, held between March and May, attendees were given a mapping exercise. With 10 blue dots, they were asked to identify the general location of where in the five communities – Leucadia, Old Encinitas, New Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Olivenhain – they think housing should go.

The 10 dots represent the 1,300 units that must be accommodated at 30 units per acre.

“We are truly interested in your individual perspective on this housing topic,” City Manager Gus Vina told the crowd at the May 14 workshop. “We know from the onset that we can’t please everybody, but we are working towards a collective solution.”

With several factors taken under consideration, including whether the land is vacant, the environmental impacts of construction and if the land is near transit opportunities, commercial services, schools and parks, people completed the exercise.

In Encinitas, a household of four people with an income less than $64, 250 is considered low income.

New Encinitas resident Beth Fainberg-Glenner said she attended the May 14 workshop for “the love of Encinitas” and because she is concerned how city planners will meet the housing needs of the low-income community.

“I am concerned that this is all about money. If we are doing low-income housing, we have to make sure it’s right for who we are building it for, and that it’s not just propped in one place and it becomes another place to live,” Fainberg-Glenner said.

“If rents rise, then it’s no longer low-come,” she said.

The other elements in the General Plan, which outlines development in Encinitas through 2035, relate to quality of life, land use, public safety and conservation. The housing element is only one requiring update every eight years.

Results from the mapping exercises will be released sometime between July and August.

Pickering said the Citizens for Saving New Encinitas plans on seeing the process through and will speak out against the new housing plan if necessary.

“We will stay involved. Not only a small group is concerned; the interest has expanded,” he said.

Ernesto Lopez is a San Diego freelance writer