The Encinitas City Council unanimously approved the adoption of a housing plan that it hopes would end its well-documented status as an affordable housing scofflaw just weeks before a judge’s deadline to adopt a plan.
State Housing Element law requires cities to provide enough housing to meet the needs of all its residents, from very-low income earners to above-moderate ones.
Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County that lacks a state-certified plan, known as a housing element, and is under a court order to enact one by April 11.
With much less public comment than at previous meetings, the City Council voted 5-0 in favor of the plan, which included several controversial recommendations from state housing department officials, including:
- Raising the maximum building heights from 33 feet for a flat roof and 37 feet for a pitched roof to 35 feet and 39 feet respectively.
- Changing where building heights are measured from.
- The inclusion of parking lots, driveways and drive aisles in calculating the project’s density – which could result in additional “bonus” housing.
- Eliminating sections from the city code aimed at requiring developers who propose super-dense projects to conform to the surrounding neighborhood and provide public benefits beyond the statutory requirements.
- The elimination of any subjective language from the update. “HCD directed that all standards must be objective in nature, containing no subjectivity,” according to the staff report.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the city has no option but to comply with the state recommendations under the truncated time frame and need for state officials to OK any plan brought back before a judge.
“We are under court order to adopt a housing plan in 120 days, and if we don’t we could be held in contempt,” Blakespear said. “We have no bargaining ability, no leverage, and we are having to make changes that we may or may not like because HCD is requiring them. We can’t say no because we have to have HCD’s approval before we go back to court.”
A divided Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of the plan on Feb. 21, the penultimate step in a years long process during which time voters have rejected two attempts at adopting an update, and several entities sued the city for its lack of one and to overturn a 2013 law that they say has empowered voters to block those attempts.
That law, Proposition A, requires a public vote on major zoning and land-use changes, such as the housing element update. Voters in 2016 and again in 2018 rejected the city’s attempts, Measure T and Measure U.
Superior Court Judge Ronald Frazier in December 2018 gave the city 120 days to adopt a housing element and overturned Prop. A for the current eight-year housing element cycle, which ends in 2021.
But the City Council, as part of the proposed housing plan, will go back to the courts to seek declaratory relief to allow it to pursue future housing element updates without a vote of the people.
Several residents at the meeting called on the city to not pass the element, which they said went against the will of the voters who rejected much of the plan when they rejected Measure U, which they said doesn’t provide affordable housing as much as it is a giveaway to developers and select land owners.
“We don’t need the state of California in our back pockets, we just don’t need it,” former mayor Sheila Cameron said. ‘The majority of voters shot this down and all you’ve done is bobble headed this back into existence.”
Donna Westbrook, who frequently opines on municipal issues at council meetings, said the city’s inclusion of the elimination of midrange density requirements came without a full public vetting at workshops and should be removed from the plan.
“These detrimental changes haven’t been discussed in community workshops,” Westbrook said. “Now it will effect neighborhoods.”
Westbrook said that the argument that declaratory relief from Prop. A would only apply to housing elements is misleading because the housing element updates comprise most of the city’s major zoning changes.
Westbrook and others also pointed out that the city appears to have a disproportionate housing requirement than other similar cities, such as Newport Beach, which only had to plan for two affordable housing units in the current cycle.
Blakespear, speaking to the public before the vote, said that she believed, despite the criticism of the plan, that the city could absorb any new housing and make it compatible with the city’s suburban character.
“To me, we can add little bit of that housing and maintain our community character, so it’s not a zero-sum game,” Blakespear said. “To me, we don’t have any options here.”
Councilman Tony Kranz said he agreed with Westbrook that the public “has a legitimate beef” regarding the inclusion of the 11th hour requirements by HCD, but said he would support Wednesday’s vote because it would likely be challenged by residents in court.
“It seems like we have a formula in place that the other parts of the update can move forward while we litigate that issue,” Kranz said.
Kranz, who in February disagreed with the decision to ask the judge for declaratory relief from Measure A, said that he feels that a judge won’t grant it, and the question will have to go before voters.