ENCINITAS — Three years after Encinitas voters bestowed upon themselves the authority of controlling the fate of major land-use decisions, the electorate will decide the fate of perhaps the largest and most complex of them all — the city’s housing element.
Measure T, the ballot designation for the housing element update, is the city’s plan to satisfy the state requirement of all cities to map out where and how they would satisfy their affordable housing requirements.
Supporters have argued that Measure T’s passage will ensure that the city comes into compliance with state law and avoid future lawsuits. Opponents, however, have argued that the plan will pave the way for much taller and denser development in Encinitas that has ever been seen without any assurances that affordable housing will be developed.
What is a housing element?
A housing element is a plan adopted by the city and required by the State Department of Housing and Community Development. It details how a city will satisfy its fair share of the region’s projected housing needs, in particular its affordable housing, during an eight-year housing cycle.
At the county level, the San Diego Association of Governments is responsible for setting that amount, known as the regional housing needs assessment. Encinitas, for example, has been assigned about 1,300 units for this housing cycle, and has been credited for creating about 200, which leaves the city responsible for showing where and how the remaining 1,089 would be located.
The state requires that cities not only provide a map of where the units would potentially be located, but a land-use designation that would accommodate a denser housing stock. The reason? In theory, the more units you build on a piece of property, the more affordable the individual units should be, thus the state chooses higher density as a proxy for affordability (more about that later).
So, what is Measure T?
Measure T is Encinitas’ proposed plan for achieving compliance with the state law. The city’s proposed update would create a new land-use designation dubbed “At Home in Encinitas,” which would encompass the 13 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 1,089 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.
Among the sites identified on the housing map are:
• two sites in downtown Cardiff, including the Town Center
• sites along Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia,
• several commercial areas in New Encinitas, including the Encinitas Ranch Shopping Center on El Camino Real and two spots at the Encinitas Boulevard intersection.
• four areas of Old Encinitas, including along Coast Highway 101,
• two areas of Olivenhain at the intersection of Rancho Santa Fe and Encinitas Boulevard.
The “At Home” land-use designation is opt-in, which means that property owners have the choice of developing under the current land use or under the new one if passed.
Encinitas originally adopted a housing element in 1993, but has since failed to adopt an update since, missing four housing cycles in the process.
Most recently, the City Council missed a deadline on Aug. 31, 2013 after scrapping a proposal the previous year that would have placed most of the housing along the El Camino Real corridor, which sparked outcry from area residents and business owners.
The city’s scofflaw status has been amplified in recent years as its lack of a housing element became one of the pillars of a lawsuit filed by the Building Industry Association of San Diego in 2015. This lawsuit, which centered on changes to the city’s density bonus policy, also included a claim that the city lacked a proper housing element.
Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County that does not have a valid housing element update.
Who supports it and why?
Measure T has the support of the Encinitas City Council, all but one candidate for elected office, several past and present planning commissioners and several local developers and a prominent environmental attorney.
Those supporters have argued that Measure T represents the city’s best effort to comply with state law, and has come after more than 140 public meetings and input from hundreds of residents.
Kurt Groseclose, a former planning commissioner who argued the merits of Measure T at a recent forum, said he didn’t think the proposal was perfect, but places the blueprint for future housing equitably across the five communities and in places where high-density housing make sense, such as commercial corridors.
The 13 also only represent a fraction of the city’s land acreage, about one percent.
“What other options do we have, we don’t have any other options,” Groseclose said.
Residents were given an opportunity to submit alternatives to the At Home at Encinitas plan in 2015. Only one plan was submitted, by local resident and Encinitas Taxpayers Association President Bob Bonde. His plan, however, didn’t satisfy state requirements and the council rejected it.
Supporters also argue that Measure T embodies the spirit of Prop. A because voters will get a chance now to weigh in on whether they support the land use designation on the 13 sites.
But most supporters said their reason for support lies in what will happen if the city does not adopt a housing element.
While the state Housing department has never sued a city for lack of compliance, affordable housing advocates and developers have sued, supporters said.
In one case in the city of Pleasanton, where voters had approved a 29,000-home cap in the city, affordable housing elements sued the city arguing the cap would restrict the city from building its share of affordable units.
The city lost its lawsuit and racked up nearly $4 million legal fees before agreeing to a settlement in August 2010 that required the city to drop its housing cap and to plan for more housing.
Supporters have opined that failing to pass Measure T could bring about similar consequences that could strip the city of its control over its land-use policies.
“I think the prospect of losing local control over our land-use decisions is enough on its own to support Measure T,” Groseclose said.
Who opposes Measure T and why?
A number of community residents, former elected officials and longtime activists have formed a coalition opposing the Measure on a number of grounds.
The most common reason for their opposition is that the proposal opens the door for a far more dense and taller housing stock than Encinitas has ever seen, and that it goes against the spirit of Prop. A, the 2013 voter-backed land-use initiative.
Bruce Ehlers, who also played a critical role in the 2013 passage of Proposition A, the city’s landmark land-use initiative, is the chairman of the committee opposed to Measure T.
He argued that the plan could potentially lay the blueprint for over 4,000 new housing units in the city that would be far too densely packed and have the potential to be upwards of 48-feet tall.
Ehlers arrived at the 4,000-unit number by calculating the maximum units that could be build if each site was built out at 40 units per acre — which would require developers to request density bonuses at each of the sites.
As it pertains to building height, Ehlers said the measure would eliminate the 30-foot building height limit at the proposed sites, which Proposition A currently imposes.
On its face, Measure T states that a building height could reach 38 feet, which could include architectural features that rise above a third story. However, Ehlers said that proposal changes how the city would calculate height, adding an additional 10 feet if you include elevator shafts and flat roof parapets.
The opponents have also argued that the city’s 1,000-home buffer is too large and unnecessary, and that they could develop a less intense plan with a smaller buffer that would pass muster with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which certifies each city’s housing plan.
But perhaps the major argument of many opponents goes back to the state’s definition of affordability. Density doesn’t necessarily equal affordability along the coast, Ehlers and others have argued, since land values are so high.
“Without any explicit guarantee of affordable housing, you are essentially giving a handful of landowners the deal of a century,” Ehlers said. “And all you will be left with is high-density luxury condos and no affordable housing.”
Ehlers said the city could come up with a better housing plan that lowers the proposed density to 25 units per acre and maintains the 30-foot housing cap, pointing to Pacific Station in downtown Encinitas and Iris Apartments in Leucadia as examples of denser developments that fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods.