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City nixes plan for homes on school site

ENCINITAS — City Council voted to deny the Encinitas Union School District’s application to rezone the former Pacific View Elementary school site on Nov. 10.
The unanimous decision came as a surprise to many in the packed City Council chambers, as some expected the council to agree with the Planning Commission’s recommendation to change the 2.8-acre parcel of land from public/semi-public use to residential. Mayor Dan Dalager recused himself because he owns property close to the site.
The change in zoning would have allowed at least 30 homes to be built on the site.
After nearly a decade since closing the doors of Pacific View Elementary School, the site’s future remains uncertain. The Planning Commission voted 3-0 on Aug. 5, with two members recusing themselves from the discussion citing conflicts of interest, to continue the Encinitas Union School District’s request for a change in zoning.
The proposal was a land use change that normally goes to the public for a vote. However, because the 2.8-acre rezoning site met certain criteria, the staff had the option to put it before the Planning Commission for a recommendation according to Associate Planner J. Dichoso.
The commission declined to vote on the zoning change from public/semi-public to residential, allowing up to 15 dwellings per acre-known as DR-15. Instead, the commissioners directed staff to include language in the proposal that would ensure future developments adhere to the character of the surrounding neighborhood. An amended proposal passed unanimously on Sept. 2.
However, the council listened to approximately 25 public speakers who opposed the zoning change. “Downtown Encinitas does not need any more residences, it doesn’t need any more people, or any more cars,” A. Paul Bergen said.
Located on Third Street between E and F streets, the modest school is surrounded by commercial buildings and smaller homes, with a few exceptions. The property was gifted to the city in 1883 for a school site. The original schoolhouse is located to the west of the property and houses the Encinitas Historical Society.
While several proposals have been tossed around regarding the future of the site, none have been met with success. In 2005, an advisory committee was created consisting of various stakeholders. An initial proposal to build a medical complex with office space and condos was met with disapproval by the downtown community.
Councilwoman Teresa Barth questioned whether the district took all of the steps that were necessary prior to seeking a zone change. “In terms of legality I needed verification that the district did everything it said it did,” she said referring to the requirement that the district offer the land to the state, county and city for sale or lease.
“We went through it by the numbers,” Superintendent Tim Baird said, referring to the district abiding by the state code that requires certain public entities to be offered the land. “If the council had a question about that I don’t know why they didn’t ask for that (proof) in the beginning,” he said.
Barth said that she found a few instances where a zoning change would not be in accordance with the city’s general plan and the downtown specific plan. “I found specifically that it was not in accordance with the coastal aspects of the general plan section,” she said after the meeting.
“The thing we need to do as a community is have a ‘let’s think out of the box, let’s think long term’ conversation that will be in the best interest of the community, hold onto the asset and help stimulate the economy downtown, respect our heritage and respect the proximity to the coast,” Barth said.
“We do not need that property as an educational asset,” Baird said, referring to a comment made by Councilman James Bond that such a valuable piece of land shouldn’t be sold to pay for everyday expenses. “It (Pacific View site) can bring financial remuneration to the district,” Baird responded after the meeting. “Right now it is a liability issue.”
“We’d like to come up with an amicable solution with the city,” he said. “We’re investigating our options at this point.”
“I think we need to step back from it and look at it with a fresh set of eyes,” Barth said.
In fact, a group of residents is gathering for a Rally for Pacific View Cultural Arts Center on Nov 20. “Now that the Encinitas City Council has voted not change the zoning for Pacific View Elementary School, the property can not be developed for residential use. This means we have a shot at giving it a second life as a cultural art center for Encinitas and the 101 artists Colony could be part of this exciting endeavor,” Danny Salzhandler said.   
“There will be some discussion about how to proceed with a proposal to the Encinitas Union School District to lease the school but mostly a time to kick up our heels before we start the hard work of making this dream a reality,” he said.
Salzhandler also stressed that any future project or use of the site should be guided by four basic principles: education, including art and nutrition, and our children’s access to the site; historic preservation and adaptive reuse of the existing buildings, that the site remain available for public use; and that it provide revenue to the district for the benefit of the city’s nine elementary schools.