Backers, city weigh next steps for Right to Vote Initiative

The Encinitas Right to Vote Initiative could shift approval of zoning changes from City Hall, pictured Feb. 8, to voters. (Photo by Roman S. Koenig)

The Encinitas Right to Vote Initiative could shift approval of zoning changes from City Hall, pictured Feb. 8, to voters. (Photo by Roman S. Koenig)

Ernesto Lopez

A special election for the Right to Vote Initiative approved in January could cost the city around $300,000, according to the Encinitas city clerk.

The initiative – which would impose a citywide height limit of two stories or 30 feet for all buildings and structures except medical complexes and some public high school sites, and require a public vote of other major amendments to zoning – earned special election status after its supporters managed to collect 5,668 signatures from registered voters in the city, which meets a threshold of 15 percent of the city’s population to qualify for a special election. Organizers collected a total of 8,526 signatures, according to a county registrar of voters document.

The measure itself would be called the Encinitas Right to Vote Amendment, according to a document posted on the website encinitasrighttovote.webs.com.

Encinitas Right to Vote, the grassroots community group that collected the signatures, explains on its website that the initiative seeks to “protect community character and protect Encinitas from future intrusive development that will compromise quality of life.”

The initiative is defining a “major amendment” as a change that increases the number of permitted units on a residential lot, removes agricultural or open-space zoning, increases maximum building height or changes a property’s use from residential to nonresidential.

“We are looking forward to getting it passed before the city adopts higher density through the General Plan update,” said Bruce Ehlers, spokesman for the initiative group and a former city planning commissioner.

“People want to have a say if we are going to have a change in density,” he said.

Throughout California, local governments are required 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.

In the current planning period, Encinitas is expected to accommodate 1,300 multifamily units at 30 units per acre. Construction is not required.

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

Ehlers said that the common theme found among residents during the group’s six months of collecting signatures was that people didn’t want development to change community character.

Comments among the city’s blogging community have mirrored such concerns: that the city will favor developers and will not pay regard to residents’ concerns.

“Planning has favored developers over the little guy. The city craves expansion for more development fees and real estate and sales tax revenue,” one resident wrote anonymously on the blog Encinitas Undercover.

Ehlers said if city planners ever favored developers over residents, it could not happen with the initiative in place.

“Developers trying to maximize profit potential would have to convince the electorate to change their mind,” he said.

At the Feb. 13 City Council meeting, council members are set to listen to the Right to Vote Initiative group, deliberate on the initiative and make one of three decisions, according to City Clerk Kathy Hollywood. They could adopt the ordinance as is, immediately order a special election or ask for a report outlining the impacts of the initiative to the city.

If a report is ordered, it will have to be presented to the council no later than 30 days after the request. The council would then have to immediately decide on one of the two options.

Mayor Teresa Barth said she supports the concept of the initiative and admires the group that collected the signatures.

“I respect and admire the people who put so much time and effort to bring this to the council and ultimately, most likely, the voters of Encinitas,” she said.

Regarding residents’ concerns, Barth said, “I completely understand their frustration; we see elections where big money comes in to support certain council candidates. I understand why people feel that big special interest has greater influence in local government.”

Ehlers said the initiative was not created to stop development in general, adding that there is a lot of “misinformation” being circulated.

“The initiative does not affect people adding to their home,” Ehlers said.

Barth said that although she will wait until the Feb. 13 council meeting to make any decisions regarding the initiative, she sees how an independent review could make sure it’s for public benefit.

If the initiative is adopted, Encinitas would not be the first city in San Diego County to have such an ordinance. Escondido voters approved a similar ordinance, Proposition S, in 1998.

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz did not respond to requests for comment about the positive or negative effects of their city’s ordinance.

Encinitas Right to Vote Initiative organizers aim to have a special election held no later than June. For more information on the group and its efforts, visit encinitasrighttovote.webs.com.

Ernesto Lopez is a San Diego freelance writer