Housing element results met with mixed reactions

ENCINITAS — The results of Encinitas’ much publicized civic engagement efforts for the upcoming Housing Element — which were powered by the controversial online platform eTown Hall — were met with mixed reactions from the residents and the City Council on Tuesday night.

The housing element is the city’s first comprehensive overhaul of its housing and residential zoning map in more than 20 years, and will map out where an anticipated 1,300 units of affordable housing will be placed within the city. Voters are expected to vote on the plan in 2016.

The plan will require the city adopt a new zoning designation that would allow upwards of 30 residential units per acre in order to satisfy the state affordable housing mandate. City officials said the plan is critical because the city faces lawsuits and state action if it does not update the housing element.

City planning staff had spent several months and hosted several workshops and forums to gather input from residents, using eTown Hall as the sole repository.

In all, about 1,000 people visited the site, and of those, 500 gave their preferences for where high-density housing should be located within the city’s five communities.

City staff took those responses and generated three maps that depicted the residents’ preferred locations for affordable housing; the first was based on the choice of one of the city’s pre-designed maps, the second was based on the results of a “build your own” scenario where residents could select candidate sites, and the third was a blend of the first two maps.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who has been a vocal critic of eTown Hall, presented a breakdown she produced of the statistics, which showed that in most neighborhoods, less than half of the input received were from residents or business owners in the neighborhoods.

In the one case where the in-neighborhood input was greater than outside of the community — New Encinitas — only 47 New Encinitas residents participated. New Encinitas has around 20,000 residents.

“This doesn’t represent the level of input we expected from our citizenry,” Gaspar said. “I expected to see the flip of this.

“I would be very uncomfortable selecting any of these sites based on this little community input,” she said.

Councilman Mark Muir echoed Gaspar’s concerns. He said he wished the city had engaged in a more scientific survey to get a more accurate pulse of the electorate’s opinion on the housing element map.

Gaspar and Muir’s council colleagues, Tony Kranz, Lisa Shaffer and Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear, however, said they believed the eTown Hall efforts yielded important information and feedback from residents that would be valuable in helping them craft a housing map that best reflects the desires of residents.

Shaffer expressed concern that a rift between the council this early in the housing element process would damage the city’s chances of passing the housing element in 2016.

“It would be unfortunate if we allowed this discussion to become a discussion on the merits of eTown Hall and Peak Democracy,” Shaffer said. “It was not meant to be a referendum or a voting tool but it was a process to give people the opportunity to engage.

“The fact that the mayor was able to do the type of analysis that she has done is a big step forward,” Shaffer said, alluding to the city’s failed General Plan update from earlier this decade.

Tony Kranz said that eTown Hall was meant to be a tool the help guide policy makers in their decision making, not make the decision for them.

“Do I wish there was more participation? Yes I do,” Kranz said. “But we live in a representative democracy and I think residents are expecting us to do much of the heavy lifting.”

The trio of council members pressed Gaspar and Muir for any alternative that would mollify their concerns about the process. Gaspar and Muir both said they could not come up with an answer Tuesday night, but that they were confident a solution would present itself in time enough to implement it before the city’s April deadline, at which time the draft housing element would be handed over to environmental consultants.

More than two-dozen residents spoke at the five-hour long session, which was a joint meeting between the city and the Planning Commission.

As expected, residents were polarized over the preliminary results of the mapping efforts. Some praised the city for its efforts, and said they believed it was a positive step forward toward creating a map that balances the future housing needs with the citizenry’s desire to preserve the city’s suburban feel.

Several residents, however, questioned both the map results and the need to comply with the housing element in its entirety. One of the biggest complaints was that the zoning designation of 30 units per acre, which the city said was necessary to satisfy state density requirements, would allow developers to build closer to 40 units per acre with density bonus considerations.

Others questioned the regional housing needs assessment number of 1,300 that the city has said is the target it must meet in order to satisfy state and regional mandates.

“This could forever change the face of quality of life in Encinitas,” said Denise Martin, a resident who posed 20 questions to the city, challenging many of the assertions the city has made about the need for the housing element. Martin asked the city to cite case law or precedent of a city being sued for not having a housing element or losing control of its planning authority, which the city has cited as a consequence of failure to approve an update.

Several of the planning commissioners — and council members — said they didn’t agree with the assertion that the housing element would drastically alter the community’s character.

“We’ve heard some strong rhetoric tonight, such as this effort would ‘change the face of the city’ or it is ‘the planned destruction of Encinitas,'” commissioner JoAnn Shannon said. “I strongly disagree, that what we are proposing tonight will irreparably destroy Encinitas.”

The groups will meet Thursday night to come to a consensus on the final housing map that will be analyzed by the environmental consultants for the housing element.

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