Commentary: Leucadia faces the wrongs of ‘by-right’

Nicola Ranson

NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) get a lot of bad press. But does anyone want an outsized building overlooking their backyard? I don’t, which was why I attended (remotely) the June 3 Encinitas Planning Commission meeting to address the huge development proposed for Vulcan Avenue in Leucadia. I heard one commissioner ask in reference to another project, “How does this development contribute to our community?” I smiled at my husband and said, “We are in good hands.” Little did I know that those hands would be tied when it came to the next proposal: 1967 Vulcan.

Commentary logoThe Vulcan lot stands on one of the few remaining pieces of ocean-view land at the northern gateway to Encinitas. Seventy-two apartments are proposed at the La Costa/Vulcan intersection where traffic is so bad the city has given it an “F” grade. But, despite many concerns raised by citizens, the project has been granted multiple waivers from regulations such as height limits and setbacks.

Encinitas has a Housing Element to ensure that future construction follows legal guidelines. In section 4, 1-15, development of this plot (AD8) is mandated to comply with laws and regulations covering everything from landscaping to design features, including height and setbacks, to ensure that future development “not impact the neighborhood’s character,” regulations designed to protect this very lot from the overbuilding currently being proposed.

In the Construction Phase (CPP) meeting, the June 3 and the subsequent June 17 Planning Commission meetings, it became clear that the developer, Austin Wermers, was not interested in the usual dialogue resulting in design changes. Instead, he asserted his right to do — well, essentially whatever he wanted.

Wermers has a point. 1967 Vulcan is a “by-right” project, the first in Encinitas to test a state law granting multiple waivers in exchange for increased density. We definitely need more housing. But I doubt that the building industry has lobbied for this law out of the goodness of their hearts.

Those who object risk being dismissed as NIMBYs. In a Dec. 1, 2019, article, “How to Beat the NIMBYers,” Dees Stribling educates developers calling outspoken citizens “a chronic condition to be managed.” But it would be a big mistake to buy the building industry’s negative stereotyping. Up until now the process of voicing objections and finding compromise has resulted in better communities for everyone. Stribling himself recommends that developers listen to dissenting neighbors. But under by-right, there is little incentive for them to do so. State law backs them up; citizens and city councils are afraid of the potentially severe penalties for opposing a by-right project.

This might be more palatable if by-right contributed more to low income housing. But, at 1967 Vulcan, 12 undersized affordable units (out of 72) don’t help our housing shortage enough to offset the damage to our community. (Plus making the inferior apartments the affordable ones is mean-spirited.) The Encinitas Planning Division’s recommendation that by-right projects be 50% low-income was turned down by the City Council. There are other ways to offer affordable housing. Building on the golf course? Putting second stories on malls? Reducing the four- to six-month wait for permits on preapproved granny flats? Are these suggestions any more ridiculous than building huge structures that will change community character forever?

But if by-right is a done deal and 1967 Vulcan goes ahead despite the traffic nightmare and inadequate parking (parking requirements got waived and Encinitas has not granted a second traffic study despite flaws in the first one), the damage could be mitigated by adjusting the design. Breaking up the boxy hotel-like appearance, reducing the size, staggering the roofline, adding native greenery — these and other improvements could not only stop the building from being an eyesore but make it innovative and attractive.

The Planning Commission denied the project on the grounds that it violated the Housing Element, General Plan and municipal code. Wermers was unwilling to make changes and elected to appeal to the Encinitas City Council, where the matter is pending.

Ask the Encinitas City Council to reject this appeal and stand up for the neighborhood, local laws and its own Planning Commission, rather than cave in to pressures from the building industry. The alternative gives developers a carte blanche to flout the regulations that have evolved to keep our backyard attractive — for generations to come. The truth about NIMBY is that it’s not just a few privileged backyards at stake — the beach community of Leucadia is everyone’s backyard to enjoy.

Nicola Ranson is a longtime Leucadia resident.

Commentaries from community members represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management. To submit a letter to the editor or commentary, click here.

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