Encinitas split over controversial housing element update

Measure T is city's latest attempt to follow state mandate

Mike Peterson

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A housing element update on the Encinitas ballot Nov. 8 has the city divided.

If approved, Measure T, as the proposal is known on the ballot, would create a new land-use designation in Encinitas that would allow property owners to build higher-density housing in certain zones around the city. The proposed sites, 13 in all, make up around 1 percent of the city’s total land area. At these sites, the measure would allow developers to build housing that is three stories and up to 30 units an acre, per the state’s proxy for affordable housing. A map of the zoning sites is available on the plan’s website.

Encinitas is currently the only city in San Diego County that is out of compliance with state law, and city officials say that they’ve been considering such a plan for years. Most cities would simply update their housing element. Three years ago, however, Encinitas residents passed the “Right to Vote” measure, which requires voter approval for any zoning changes in the city.

Most City Council candidates back measure

Tasha Boerner Horvath

Tasha Boerner Horvath

“For me, Measure T represents our community’s best effort in complying with state law,” said Tasha Boerner Horvath, an Encinitas planning commissioner and a candidate for City Council.

Boerner Horvath also emphasized that the passing of Measure T wouldn’t actually approve any housing or building plans. Any new developments at the proposed sites would still have to be brought before the Planning Commission.

Tony Brandenburg

Tony Brandenburg

City Council candidate and Olivenhain Planning Commissioner Tony Brandenburg, on the other hand, disagrees with the measure.

“It’s an empty shell,” Brandenburg said. “It possibly fulfills the state requirement, but it doesn’t guarantee that one low-cost or affordable home will ever be built … isn’t that the whole idea?”

Brandenburg is currently the only City Council or mayoral candidate who opposes Measure T. The other six candidates support the measure to varying degrees.

Catherine Blakespear

Catherine Blakespear

“It is a unity that you rarely see,” mayoral candidate Catherine Blakespear said of the nearly unanimous support among the candidates. “I think that’s because we all recognize the necessity of it.”

Proponents of Measure T say that it will finally bring Encinitas into compliance with state law, and that failing to do so could cost the city millions of dollars fighting legal battles.

Paul Gaspar

Paul Gaspar

“Measure T is certainly not perfect, but I plan to vote for it because of the likely consequences should it fail,” mayoral candidate Paul Gaspar wrote in an email, adding that an updated housing element would allow the city to qualify for certain grants that could help the city pay for expensive projects.

Phil Graham

Phil Graham

Phil Graham, another City Council candidate, said that passing Measure T is the “fiscally responsible thing to do,” though he disagrees with the state’s housing policy that Measure T would satisfy.

“We are out of compliance with state law, and we are wasting money on lawsuits we can’t win,” Blakespear said, adding that such lawsuits would cost taxpayers.

Several city officials also added that Measure T wasn’t a top-down initiative. Around 140 public meetings were held to develop and vet the updated housing element. City officials took the community’s input and developed several plans, and then selected what they thought was the best plan to be placed on the ballot, she said.

Still, some people in the community aren’t happy about the measure.

Density and traffic concern critics

Bruce Ehlers, a former Encinitas planning commissioner and a member of the No on T commission, said that the updated housing element’s upzoning allowances, despite the small area of land they would occur on, go beyond the state’s minimum requirements. He argued that Measure T could allow for 3,000 additional housing units to be built at the sites, potentially adding a 12 percent population increase and additional traffic congestion to the city.

Bruce Ehlers

Bruce Ehlers

“Our complaint is that they’re way overdoing it,” Ehlers said.

He added that the city could have met state law with a 20-unit-per-acre maximum, rather than the 30-unit-per-acre maximum that appears on the ballot.

“The city has failed to produce a plan that represents the majority of residents and complies with state law,” a commenter wrote on Encinitas Undercover, a lively local blog and one place where residents are expressing their concerns. “Instead, city staff has produced a plan to benefit developers, relatively few property owners and themselves.”

Critics also bring up the fact that the developments at the proposed zones, due to their increased height limit, could hurt the character of their respective neighborhoods. Additionally, Ehlers said, the measure reduces parking requirements at the proposed sites — potentially forcing the extra cars out onto neighborhood streets.

“The relaxing of parking and height and other standards seems like a completely unnecessary giveaway to developers,” said the owner of Encinitas Undercover, who requested to remain anonymous. “I think we should reject it and come up with a better plan.”

But the biggest issue with Measure T, according to Ehlers, is the fact that it doesn’t actually guarantee that lower-cost housing will be built. Although Encinitas has several programs that require a portion of development to be set aside for affordable housing, those requirements are in place even if Measure T fails at the ballot, Ehlers said.

In a town like Encinitas, most of the development could end up as luxury condos, he added.

Many critics of the housing element also argue that Measure T’s development was rushed and that a better plan could have been developed. One resident pointed out that, if Measure T fails to pass, the city could come up with a better plan.

“The city would start over to hopefully create a fresh housing element that voters can pass,” Peter Stern told the City Council at its Oct. 12 meeting. “One that guarantees low-income housing, one that keeps building heights 30 feet, and one that doesn’t transfer powers to an unelected official.”

Brandenburg, who voted to put Measure T on the ballot but later came out against it, urged voters to be aware of the measure’s potential repercussions.

“Take a good, hard look at (Measure T) before you vote on it,” Brandenburg said. “And realize what it’s going to do.”

Potential legal challenges

Tony Kranz

Tony Kranz

Critics and supporters of Measure T are also divided over the threat of legal repercussions. Although most agree that the state itself isn’t likely to sue Encinitas, proponents of Measure T say that the city’s lack of compliance with the law could invite legal action from developers and advocates of affordable housing.

“When (critics) say ‘no attorney is going to take this,’” City Council member and reelection candidate Tony Kranz said, “well, we’ve already had a couple recent threats, plus we already have two settlements.”

Additionally, local courts could potentially impose an arbitrary housing order on Encinitas if Measure T fails to pass, Kranz added. Or, according to the argument in favor that appears on the ballot, the city’s abilities to make its own land-use decisions could be revoked.

Mark Muir

Mark Muir

The city did settle two lawsuits, one from the Building Industry Association, and another from Dcm Properties. Marco Gonzalez, a prominent local attorney, has also vowed to sue the city if the measure fails, the Voice of San Diego reported.

“He’s threatening to sue because it’s political,” Ehlers pointed out. “And his threat will help his argument.”

But Measure T’s fate ultimately lies in the hands of voters.

Mark Muir, a City Council member running for reelection in November, said that, although he personally supports passing Measure T, he hopes residents will be informed on both sides of the argument and vote for whatever they feel is the best option.

“That’s all I can ask,” Muir said.

Mike Peterson is a North County freelance writer

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