ENCINITAS — In a church annex on a Monday afternoon, Lisa Dietrich peppered Manjeet Ranu with questions, but not the type of questions you would expect inside of a church.
Rather than a spiritual quest, Dietrich was on a mission to find out how Encinitas’ proposals to plan for 1,300 affordable units would affect she and her family, who live on the border of Leucadia and New Encinitas.
“Why does Olivenhain, with more land, get fewer housing units than the rest of the communities?” Dietrich asked Ranu, starting a 30-minute walk-through in which Manu explained to her the ins and outs of the city’s plans, and how she could be a part of shaping those plans.
Dietrich and more than 50 people attended Monday’s daylong Housing Element Workshop inside of Beacon’s Bible Church on La Veta Avenue in Leucadia, the site chosen for people in the Leucadia neighborhood to learn about the much-discussed update to the city’s residential zoning map.
The city has now hosted four of the five planned workshops, with the final one scheduled for Saturday at Diegueno Middle School in New Encinitas. Additionally, hundreds of people have participated in the city’s online virtual workshops, which provide the same information received at the physical workshop sites.
So far, city officials are calling the citywide informational campaign a success.
“We’ve gotten pretty good turnouts at the meetings so far,” said Mike Strong, an associate planner with the city. “It has been good to see people come in looking for information, with questions about how the Housing Element will impact them, and they leave feeling better because they are part of the solution and are playing an active role in deciding the future of the community.”
The Housing Element is a state-mandated document that essentially lays out where the city would develop higher-density units to meet the number of affordable housing units the state anticipates Encinitas will need to accommodate its population growth.
Since the housing element requires zone changes, the public will vote on it in 2016.
The city’s workshops are aimed at educating residents on the importance of updating the plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1992, mapping out potential locations where affordable housing could be developed, and detailing the city’s plans for making the more dense developments blend in with the suburban community.
Among the methods includes building housing atop existing commercial developments, a trend known as mixed-use development, or zoning areas such as greenhouses and other properties for apartments or denser residential development. None of the city’s concepts included housing taller than three stories, which would require an election to accomplish.
Erik Gilmer, a local developer, also attended Monday’s workshop. He was impressed with the city’s presentation, but said he was skeptical the city could deliver the required number of units without building taller than three stories in specific areas or waiving parking requirements.
“Across the state, there are examples of quality multi-story developments that maintain the community’s existing character,” Gilmer said. “I think we need to look at going higher in very specific areas.”
The Housing Element update has had its critics. Several, including former City Council candidate Julie Graboi, have criticized he city for using its online forum, E-Town Hall, to field public feedback on the topic. The online forum is not a scientific poll, and Graboi and others have argued that the city should be using scientific polling methods to get a better pulse of what residents want.
This week, Graboi also was critical of the rapid succession of the meetings, which she said limits public participation.
“All of the meetings are within a week, so the outreach period will come and go very quickly before most people are aware of it. Also, there is no time to improve the process to see if there is a way to increase participation since this is an outreach event,” Graboi said. “Staff sent out the announcements the same week that final campaign flyers were going out, so this would seem to minimize participation since most people throw flyers away during the last week of the election.”
City officials said they doubled up on efforts to make the public aware of the meetings, including using public works LED signs along the city’s major thoroughfares — the same signs used to alert drivers of street maintenance projects — that displayed the location of the closest meeting.
Strong said Monday that many of the people who attended the workshops had been following the process, but a number of people were attracted by the signs or by mailers the city sent out and were interested in what the update meant for their street, neighborhood or community.
“They left feeling more informed,” he said.
Such was the case of Dietrich, who said her favorite part of the entire presentation was an option on the online forum where residents can design their own housing element plans and submit them for consideration.
“It makes you feel like you are part of the process, rather than the city dictating the process to you,” Dietrich said. “I felt they did a great job of communicating what our options are.”