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District sues city over Pacific View zoning

ENCINITAS — In an announcement that came as no surprise to many, the Encinitas Union School District Superintendent said it had filed suit against the city on Oct. 7 for rejecting its effort to rezone the Pacific Elementary property.
City Council voted 2-2 not to affirm a staff recommendation to accept the district’s request to rezone the Pacific View site at the Aug. 17 meeting, with Councilwomen Maggie Houlihan and Teresa Barth opposed and Mayor James Bond and Councilman Jerome Stocks voting in favor.
Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar recused herself because she reasoned that she wasn’t a council member when the issue first began, much to the dismay of at least two council members and a public speaker.
The decision not to take action on the staff’s proposal came as a surprise to many in the packed City Council chambers.
Some expected the council to agree with the Planning Commission’s recommendation from last year to change the 2.8-acre parcel of land from public/ semi-public use to residential.
Located on Third Street between E and F streets, the school is surrounded by commercial buildings and smaller homes. The school was closed in 2003 because of declining enrollment; school officials claim the building has fallen into a state of disrepair.
The property was gifted to the city in 1883 as a school site by one of the town founders, J. Pitcher. A fact that local residents Bill Sparks and Sarah Garfield highlighted in a recent e-mail. “It was a gift,” they wrote. “They wanted it for the community and it’s children.”
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.
After affirming its earlier decision in January of this year, the district threatened to sue the city.
Yet, district officials entered into a tolling agreement in June with the city that allowed for negotiations over the rezoning proposal to proceed without a lawsuit.
Dr. Tim Baird, the district’s superintendent, was visibly disappointed by the council’s latest action. “I don’t understand their rationale,” he said after the meeting.
The district agreed to relocate the historic schoolhouse to Third St. on a 50-by 100-foot lot, with a total of 15 to 17 residential lots of the same size on the remainder of the site. It agreed to identify exactly what “beach cottage” design is and require the potential buyer to adhere to those specifications during development.
The district also agreed that grading would remain compatible with the surrounding vicinity and that it would expand Fourth Street for public use.
The real sticking point came when staff announced that the district would require a covenant prohibiting the state’s density bonus law, not allowing additional homes to be built on the site, according to law.
Some council members and the public doubted a covenant on private property could supersede state law. Sabine reminded the audience that the law only applies when the developer asks for it to be activated, rather than a mandate to build more housing.
Project land use changes, or zoning changes, which qualifies as a specific plan amendment, are required to go before voters, according to the general plan, unless a super majority of the council vote against the rezoning.
The council’s August vote translated into a “no action” vote, thus the previous decision not to change the zoning still stands.
Sabine said a 2007 state education code dictated that if certain prerequisites are met then the city “shall” zone the property consistent with the surrounding uses and the general and specific plans. “This is mandatory language,” Sabine said.
The courts have upheld conditional, or contract zoning, according to Sabine. But it was not a settled matter specifically with density bonus law, because it’s not “expressed” in the law. “There are no guarantees,” he said.
Stocks predicted that the courts would ultimately decide the zoning if the council did not take action. “Let’s hope I’m completely wrong,” he said.
Baird stated that the district had gone above and beyond to work with the city and surrounding neighbors on a viable solution. However, the efforts did not render a viable plan according to Baird.
“The only value that Pacific View has for the education of our children is as an asset that can be sold, leased, or traded,” Baird wrote in an open letter. Sparks and Garfield responded to the statement by saying, “this conveys the perspective of someone temporarily coming into our community with a singular focus on raising money for EUSD. That’s the job.”
The district trustees voted 3-1, with Maureen Muir opposed, to approve the release of a request for proposals immediately.