ENCINITAS — Council ordered a special election for the “right-to-vote” initiative to take place June 18, instead of adopting it outright at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Under the initiative, increasing density or building heights beyond 30 feet would require a majority vote of the public. Additionally, changing the zoning type of a parcel in some circumstances would also need voter approval.
The initiative aims to strip council of its power to increase height or density and change zoning type with a four-out-five council member vote.
Council members agreed that they, and future councils, shouldn’t have the ability to “up-zone” with a four-fifths vote. But they also had some reservations with the initiative.
Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar said she’s concerned that the initiative, if approved by voters, might also need the go-ahead from the California Coastal Commission. About 80 percent of the city falls under the coastal commission’s jurisdiction.
Should the initiative pass with the voters and the coastal commission deny it, it would put most of the city on “one zoning track and the rest on another,” Gaspar said.
“What it says to me is that the projects that incorporate more intense uses get shoved to the areas that have the more lenient zoning,” Gaspar said.
Councilman Mark Muir said the initiative is a package deal. Council members can’t pick and choose what they like from it.
“There’s some parts of the initiative that I like, and some not so good parts,” Muir said. “Unfortunately, there’s this thing called unconditional acceptance — you can’t just accept part of it, you have to accept all of it.”
The initiative will include an impartial description and an argument for and against it when it goes before voters. In sending the initiative to a special election, council had the option of writing the argument against it. Council agreed the opportunity should be used to list the pros and cons of the initiative, or what Mayor Teresa Barth called an argument that’s “kinda, sorta against.” A subcommittee will present that language to council for approval March 27.
During the public comments section, Ian Thompson, the husband of the late Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan, said the initiative will give residents power over influential development interests.
“Unfortunately for the past 12-plus years, Encinitas City Council development decisions have been dominated by special interests, inside and outside of our community,” said Thompson referring to actions of previous councils.
Because of this, much of the development in the city has been incompatible with Encinitas’ slow-growth philosophy, he said.
As a result of council direction, the law firm Rutan and Tucker issued an analysis of the initiative last week. The report lists a host of issues.
Chiefly, the report states that the city would have a difficult time complying with state-housing requirements if major zoning decisions are put in the hands of voters.
Every eight years, the state says a certain number of housing units must be built in Encinitas, and other cities, based on population trends and other factors. To accommodate these units, the city will likely have to rezone properties or plan for increased density, triggering a public vote.
If voters reject the units, developers could sue the city for not having a housing element in place, which is against state law. But two of the 28 public speakers pointed out that Encinitas has never certified a housing element. Further, the initiative isn’t “anti-growth,” but rather about growth people can live with, several residents said.
A similar proposition was passed in Escondido more than a decade ago. Escondido has rejected some developments, but the city has never faced a lawsuit from developers due to the proposition, according to Jerry Harmon, a past Escondido councilman.
“Citizens do pay attention; they do like to be at the table,” Harmon said.
Everett Delano, a lawyer who helped author the right-to-vote initiative, said Rutan and Tucker’s report is full of “dooms-speak,” specifically the claim that the coastal commission must green light the initiative.
His reasoning: the initiative seeks to overturn certain land use elements that aren’t subject to coastal commission approval. But on the off chance the coastal commission does get involved, only parts of the initiative are in question, rather than the whole thing, Delano said.
Not all the speakers were in favor of the initiative. Some were plainly opposed. They said the initiative would cripple development and send election costs sky high.
Other residents were torn.
Keith Harrison said he too is concerned with community character. But he noted the initiative could negatively impact “specific plans” like the one in downtown Encinitas.
Under the specific plans, some of the buildings within them are taller or denser than normally allowed under city standards. In certain circumstances, raising density makes sense, and it’s not fair to hold up specific plans that take the context of the neighborhood into account, Harrison said.
Harrison added that, “community character isn’t just about height.”
“The La Paloma Theatre is one of the most beloved buildings we have in our downtown; it’s 40 feet tall,” Harrison said.
“That tells you right there that a 30-foot-height limit doesn’t establish community character,” Harrison added.
Council also threw around the idea of a public workshop to discuss the pros and cons of the initiative, but didn’t finalize plans for it.
At least 5,700 signatures for the initiative were deemed valid, qualifying it for a special election. The special election will cost the city an estimated $350,000 to $400,000.