Commission unanimously recommends housing element plan to council

ENCINITAS — After hours of debate and community comment spread over two meetings, the Encinitas Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the City Council approve the proposed housing element update for the November 2016 ballot.

The Planning Commission’s 5-0 votes advance the proposed plan to the City Council, which will then ultimately decide what voters will see on the ballot Nov. 8.

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 affordable housing will be placed within the city.

Encinitas is the only community in San Diego without an updated housing element, a dubious distinction that city officials say hurts them when competing for certain regional grants.

The city’s proposed update would create a new land-use designation dubbed “At Home in Encinitas,” which would encompass the 33 sites the city has identified as potential housing sites.  The designation would allow property owners in the site areas to develop between 20 and 30 units per acre and build up to three stories of housing, the density that the state uses as a proxy for affordability.

Under the “At Home” designation, the city’s housing element update proposal would accommodate nearly 2,000 units of this type of residential development, more than the 1,300 that the state is mandating. City officials said the buffer is necessary to ensure if people opt not to use the new land-use designation there would still be enough designated properties to satisfy the state mandate.

The proposed housing element has polarized the community and its elected officials over the course of the past three years, when the city began to prepare to place the item on the ballot.

The May 26 Planning Commission was no different, as the commissioners debated whether the proposal should include a requirement that 25 percent of any housing built as a result of the housing element be set aside for affordable housing.

Commissioners Michael O’Grady and Anthony Brandenburg made the recommendation, and Brandenburg offered the strongest words about the plan, which he called “nebulous,” and said that without a guarantee he believed no affordable housing would be built.

“I feel quite strongly that without a real commitment, we are going to have an absolute minimum of affordable housing own the road,” he said. “I want affordable housing period, and I don’t see this as a true commitment to it, period.”

Commissioner Tasha Boerner Horvath disagreed with the idea of a 25 percent mandate, which she said would almost guarantee that no affordable housing would be built at all because it would make it financially unfeasible. She sided with staff’s approach, which includes six programs within the housing element document that are aimed that preserving and producing affordable housing and providing incentives to developers to create more housing.

“There are a number of important points that have been missed that it while doesn’t have number trigger…it demonstrates the city’s commitment to the affordability,” Horvath said.

Staff also argued that the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which governs the housing element, would not approve the 25 percent mandate given the city’s track record when it comes to affordable housing.

“The commitment is in there, it’s in the programs,” Planning Director Manjeet Ranu said regarding the housing element document.

Ultimately, the commission compromised by adding an additional recital to the document’s preamble that said that the city “must commit” to increasing the availability of need-based affordable housing consistent with the programs in the document.

The Commission’s May 26 action was preceded by a May 24 meeting in which more than 40 people spoke about the proposed housing element plan.

The crowd of residents — largely opposed to the current iteration of the plan — packed the council chambers at that meeting and one by one outlined their opposition, attacking various details of the proposal.

There were 43 people who spoke at the May 24 planning commission meeting that lasted for three hours. Most of the opposition testimony fell into three categories: those who were opposed to a certain site, those who were opposed to a housing element altogether and those who were opposed to the housing element’s lack of a guarantee that the homes produced would be earmarked for low-income residents.

Several residents did voice favor for the plan.

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