Prop A election triggers debate over land use

Prop A election triggers debate over land use
Prop A is headed for a special election June 18. The land-use initiative reignited a debate over how Encinitas should grow. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — Pam Slater-Price, the mayor of Encinitas in 1990 and former county supervisor, noted that land use has consistently been a hot topic in the city.

With a June 18 special election on Prop A, the issue is once again at the center of a citywide debate.

Last summer, residents began gathering signatures for the “Right-to-Vote” initiative, now known as Proposition A. By January, the initiative qualified for a special election, sparking a back-and-forth debate about how the city should grow.

Proponents maintain Prop A would protect community character by putting zoning decisions in the hands of residents.

The City Council has stated they believe in the spirit of the initiative. But they oppose Prop A on the grounds that it makes development in some parts of the city needlessly difficult and opens Encinitas up to legal challenges.

Slater-Price said Prop A would continue a tradition of self-determination in Encinitas. Because of concerns with overdevelopment, residents voted in 1986 to break away from the county and make Encinitas its own city.

“I’ve always believed that people who live here know what’s best for Encinitas,” Slater-Price said. “Not developers, the region or the state.”

In most cases, Encinitas voters already have the power to vote on increases in density, as well as changes in zoning.

Prop A eliminates the City Council’s ability to “up-zone” beyond height and density limits with a four-out-of-five councilmember vote. The “four-fifths” exception was passed in 1991 to give council more flexibility with zoning — a decision Slater-Price called “a mistake.”

Councilmembers agree that the four-fifths exception could lead to development that doesn’t sit well with the community. So they unanimously eliminated it with a resolution last month.

Prop A supporters counter that because it’s a resolution, a future council could reverse the action.

In response, City Council intends to put the resolution to a public vote in 2014. And if passed, future councils couldn’t undo it.

The City Council has yet to release the language.

Consequently, Slater-Price said there’s no guarantee they’ll submit a ballot that eliminates the four-fifths exception and that doesn’t contain any other zoning loopholes.

Yet Councilman Tony Kranz said he’s committed to an initiative on the 2014 ballot that reaffirms the public’s right to vote — sans any loopholes.

“We got rid of that exception and we want to lock it in with a public vote,” Kranz said.

Kranz signed Prop A this past fall, but later came out against after it was brought to his attention that “specific plans” within the city would be impacted.

Most of the city has a maximum height limit of 30 feet. Yet a handful of specific plans throughout the city allow a small number of mixed-use projects, as well as some commercial buildings to be taller than 30 feet. For instance, the mixed-use Pacific Station development was built according to guidelines in the downtown Encinitas specific plan. Thus, it wasn’t subject to a public vote, though residents weighed in on the project during city council meetings.

As another example, the Encinitas Town Ranch Center permits some buildings up to 40 feet.

If Prop A passes, existing buildings in the specific plans would remain intact. But proposed buildings higher than 30 feet within them would go to a public vote. Proponents of the initiative argue that some of the specific plans are flawed, because they were passed with the four-fifths exception.

However, Kranz said the specific plans revitalized businesses across the city. And they take community character into account.

“I’m not sure why Prop A addresses specific plans,” Kranz said. “They’re largely popular with residents.

“Prop A overcomplicates matters,” Kranz added.

As an example, he said an area near C Street and 2nd Street in downtown is zoned greater than 30 feet for visitor-commercial, making it the ideal location for a hotel.

But Prop A would demand a public vote, adding another layer of difficulty.

“I agree with much of the initiative, but I can’t support it due to unintended consequences like this,” he said.

Mayor Teresa Barth, also against Prop A, declined to comment for the article, only stating that the election has been “ugly” and “divisive.”

Bruce Ehlers, spokesman for Prop A, said that if the initiative passes, he has faith in the residents to make informed decisions.

“Good projects will win public support and get approved,” Ehlers said.

Given the contributions flowing into the election, he referred to Prop A as a “David versus Goliath battle.”

Three organizations, two against Prop A and one for it, have been active in trying to sway voters with mailers and signs around town.

The two “no” on A groups have combined to raise more than $55,000, while the organization in favor of it has brought in $8,400, as of June 11.

“We’re concerned residents (who) are up against development interests,” Ehlers said.

Further, he said an anti-Prop A group has “spread conjecture that just isn’t true about Prop A.” A recent mailer from one of the “no” on A groups alleges that home remodels would require a public election.

But Encinitas city staff confirmed that that’s not the case during a March 27 council meeting.

Steve Shackelton, a local architect, said that Prop A supporters have also released their fair share of deceptive election materials.

They’ve papered the city with posters showing a five-story building towering over a neighborhood, he argued.

“Planning exercises never placed five-story homes in a residential neighborhood,” Shackelton said. “It’s disingenuous to say otherwise.”

By exercises, Shackelton is referring to citizen groups helping the city update the housing element of its General Plan.

Based on projected growth, the city was assigned 1,300 housing units by the state. And the groups mapped out where the mandated units could be built.

“The truth is we were looking for underutilized properties that wouldn’t impact neighbors,” Shackelton said.

“Eventually, we’ll have to have a plan in place for those units,” he said.

Revamping the General Plan has taken more than three years and cost the city more than $1 million, without consensus.

The process is expected to resume in the fall.

And Shackelton said citizen input in the General Plan is a better course than ballot-box planning — especially if the city is going to meet its state-housing requirement.

In response, Ehlers has said Encinitas shouldn’t focus so much on the state numbers. He argued they’re inaccurate and unrealistic.

Critics of the state mandate say Encinitas hasn’t certified a housing element since the early 1990s, with few repercussions.

But Shackelton said Encinitas is pressing its luck if it fails to move forward with a housing element. On that note, he also said Prop A is full of ambiguities that could lead to lawsuits from developers.

“I’ve had a difficult time interpreting this,” Shackelton said. “I assume it will be the same for others.”

The election is projected to cost the city $300,000, according to the Registrar of Voters.

Who will pay for the ballot items if Prop A passes? If developers ask for the increase in density, they would pay for it, likewise for the city.

Zoning changes can either be placed on a special election at a greater cost — loosely estimated around $300,000 — or wait until a general election.

Items on the general election would have a price of around $30,000 for the first item and $20,000 for subsequent ones, though that’s only an estimate.


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