REGION — North County is not immune to the housing crisis. In almost each community, city officials have grappled with various housing-related issues.
The struggle with housing-related issues is the top storyline in The Coast News’ coverage area and headlines the Top 10 stories of 2017, as decided by a panel of The Coast News editors and reporters.
Here are some of the highlights of the region’s housing struggles:
1. Close to home
Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe took steps to limit the exponential growth of short-term vacation rentals, an issue gripping even larger cities like San Diego. Del Mar officials voted to require guests to stay at the homes for no less than a week and for a maximum of 28 days per year for rentals of less than 30 days. Property owners pleaded with the city to adopt less strict standards, while opponents of vacation rentals hailed the city’s actions.
Encinitas’ well-known struggles to develop a state-mandated affordable housing plan have spilled into the courts, where the city faces three lawsuits asking the courts to compel the city to adopt a plan without a vote of the public. The council’s plans to bring another affordable housing plan to voters after the 2016 failure of Measure T was hit with another obstacle, as a slate of new housing laws that take effect Jan. 1, 2018, forced the city to change course on its plan.
In Escondido, the City Council decided the fate of the abandoned Escondido Country Club, which has been the center of a years-long battle between residents and the property owner. The council narrowly approved plans for a 380-unit project on the 109-acre property, despite outcry from residents who felt the project was too dense for the area. In 2013, a citizens group successfully got the city to declare the property could only be used for open space, but a judge ruled that the property owner’s rights were violated by the council’s action because when he bought the land he did so knowing it was zoned for residential development and had the reasonable expectation of being able to build on the property, which led to a settlement that ultimately led to the Nov. 15 vote. In a twist, the country club burned down on Nov 22. The citizens group filed a lawsuit against the city on Dec. 14 alleging several violations for approving the development.
In San Marcos, the city faces a lawsuit looking to overturn the city’s approval of a 189-unit project in the city’s foothills, which critics say is an example of “spot zoning” that will harm wildlife, place new homes in high-danger areas for fires and strain precious water resources, among other things. The city also continues to retool its planned creek district to de-emphasize the retail and office space component and place more of an emphasis on housing.
And in the hills north of San Marcos, a developer has proposed a 2,100-home project that essentially replaces a project the County Board of Supervisors narrowly rejected nearly a decade ago. Residents have criticized the Newland Sierra project as another example of spot zoning that voters rejected in 2016 with the failed Lilac Hills Ranch proposal. Caltrans has also disputed the Newland Ranch draft environmental report as insufficient and misleading regarding freeway interchange improvements and traffic mitigation.
Here are the rest of the Top 10 stories and storylines of 2017
2. North County cities — under duress — change election systems
For years, voters in almost every city, school district and special district in North County have been able to vote for each of their elected representatives in what are known as “at-large” elections.
Beginning in 2016, however, a Malibu-based attorney began to send letters to cities across the region, with a simple message: your at-large elections disenfranchise Latinos. Change them, or be sued.
One by one, cities began to reluctantly make the change from at-large systems to those where the cities are split into voting districts, with voters only being able to vote for a representative from their district.
Why did they make the change? Because no city had ever successfully challenged a lawsuit filed under the California Voting Rights Act.
Some cities, like San Marcos, quickly made the change with little push back from residents or elected officials. In other cases, like Encinitas, residents implored their elected officials to fight the legal threat in court, but ultimately fell in line.
Beginning in 2018, San Marcos, Vista, Carlsbad, Oceanside and Encinitas will all hold their first by-district elections.
3. Marijuana debate rages throughout North County
On Nov. 8, 2016, California voters approved the legalization of cannabis for recreational use with the overwhelming passage of Proposition 64.
While the proposition created the legal framework for a state licensing and taxation system for cannabis, it deferred to cities on questions of whether to allow commercial cannabis activities, which has sent a number of jurisdictions scrambling to craft new rules before the Jan. 1, 2018, deadline. The result has been a series of protracted and emotional battles over cannabis› place in North County cities.
Nowhere did the battle play itself out more prominently than in Encinitas, where the city considered whether to allow farmers to grow cannabis commercially on agriculturally zoned property, a move endorsed by the city’s last large-scale flower grower, Bob Echter.
For months, speakers flooded Encinitas City Council meetings during the public comment section, staking their positions for and against cannabis production, prompting the city to shorten public comment and ask residents to wave their hands rather than applaud after each comment.
Encinitas created a subcommittee to craft a set of rules to regulate cannabis cultivation, but the subcommittee could not reach a consensus and punted the issue to the City Council.
Then, after a marathon hearing on Oct. 20 where more than 300 people attended and more than 100 signed up to speak, the City Council voted to put the question to voters in November 2018.
In the meantime, Encinitas has banned all commercial cannabis operations, as have all other North County cities. Vista residents will also vote on whether to allow medical marijuana businesses in town next November, as proponents collected enough signatures to place an item on the November 2018 ballot on whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries.
4. Lilac fire burns 4,100 acres as firefighters thwart blaze’s march to the Pacific Ocean
Just before noon on Dec. 7, firefighters responded to a report of a brush fire just west of Interstate 15 near the town of Bonsall.
Fanned by strong Santa Ana winds, the fire erupted into a blaze that would at its height char 4,1000 acres, destroy 157 structures, damage 64 others, injure six people and killed dozens of horses, many of the animals unable to escape the blaze at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center.
The fire forced school closures in a dozen districts and displaced thousands of residents due to mandatory evacuations.
Before nightfall of the first day of the blaze, fire officials spoke ominously about the fire’s rapid spread, and said if gale-force winds did not die down overnight, the blaze could reach the Pacific Ocean.
Fortunately, Mother Nature gave fire crews a reprieve, and firefighters used a strong aerial and ground offensive to stop the fire’s forward spread.
Still, homeowners, horse owners and others are still coming to grips with the devastation of a blaze that occurred near the 10-year anniversary of the county’s last spate of devastating wildfires. The Rancho Monserate Country Club, a senior mobile home community, bore the brunt of the devastation, as nearly half of the 157 homes destroyed by the blaze were in the community.
5. Longtime Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood resigns; Del Mar fires longtime community services director; Encinitas appoints first openly gay councilman
On Dec. 6, longtime Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood made a dramatic return to the City Council dais to lead his first council meeting in six months after suffering a stroke on May 16.
A week later, the 69-year-old mayor announced his resignation, effective Jan. 1, 2018.
Wood’s resignation was one of several stories involving elected or appointed officials to make headlines this year.
The announcement rocked Oceanside City Hall, where Wood had presided as the city’s elected mayor since 2004, two years after being elected to the City Council.
Wood’s resignation came after the City Council had granted him two extended leaves of absence to recover from his most recent stroke, one of several he has had since 2011.
State law specifies that the council has 60 days after receiving the resignation to appoint someone or schedule an election. The council has until Feb. 7, 2018, to place the vacancy on the June ballot.
Wood has recommended the council appoint current City Clerk Zack Beck or former City Manager Jim Weiss to replace him for the remainder of his four-year term.
In Del Mar, the city fired Pat Vergne, its longtime chief lifeguard and community services director, after a months-long investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct and misuse of public funds. He filed a $5 million claim against the city in December.
The city claims that Vergne and his administrative assistant cost the city a little more than $200,000 during a three-year period, mostly by reducing or waiving facility rental fees. Additionally, the report states, Vergne signed off on alleged false claims for overtime and personal purchases on a city credit card submitted by Rogers and allowed a part-time employee to be paid twice for the same work.
In Encinitas, the City Council appointed Joe Mosca to the dais, replacing Catherine Blakespear, who was elected to the mayor position. Mosca, a former parks and recreation commissioner and City Councilman in the city of Sierra Madre, becomes the first openly gay City Council member in Encinitas’ 30-year history.
6. Groups gird up to defeat embattled Congressman Darrell Issa
After a protracted 2016 election that saw U.S. Representative Darrell Issa (R-Vista) barely survive his toughest election test, groups opposing the congressman have turned up the heat in advance of the 2018 midterms.
Groups began protesting outside of Issa’s Vista field office shortly after the election to protest the agenda of then President-elect Donald Trump. Every Tuesday, hundreds gather on Thibodo Road, waving signs, chanting, cheering, booing and singing for an hour.
The protests reached a crescendo in May when nearly 800 people protested the House vote — including Issa’s — to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
A smaller group of counter protesters also gathers on the opposite side of the street in support of Issa.
In February, nearly 1,500 people flooded Jim Porter Recreation Center in Vista for a town-hall meeting, looking to question Issa about his support of the Republican majority’s attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Issa was a no show.
The city of Vista, citing public safety concerns, placed new restrictions on the protest permit — including where and how they could protest. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a letter to Vista officials in June that the new restrictions infringe on the First Amendment rights of protesters.
Meanwhile, a trio of candidates have emerged as Democratic challengers to Issa, including retired Col. Doug Applegate, who nearly defeated Issa in 2016. Rancho Santa Fe businessman Paul Kerr and Orange County environmental attorney Mike Levin have also announced their candidacies.
7. Escondido votes to outsource library services
On Oct. 18, the Escondido City Council voted 4-1 to outsource operation of its public library to a private company based in Maryland. Supporters of the library filed a lawsuit in November to challenge the City Council’s decision and 10-year agreement with Library Systems & Services, which begins operations on Jan. 15, 2018. LS&S operates nine libraries systems in the state and 36 branches in Riverside County.
The council based its decision on the growing pension debt owed by the city to its employees and potential savings of $400,000 per year.
Escondido officials said savings from the library’s operational budget will help the city meet its burgeoning obligations to the California Public Employee Retirement System, which are projected to increase from $20.8 million this fiscal year to $36.8 million in five years. A budget adopted by the council in June anticipates pension deficits of $1.8 million next year and $6.5 million in 2018 without new revenue or reduced expenses.
Since the council’s decision, a senior researcher quit in protest and the director of library and community services position was eliminated in next year’s budget. The other library employees, according to the council, will can remain with the library, transfer to another city department or be fired. The library board of trustees will be involved with the management of the library and decisions about what books are purchased.
Councilwoman Olga Diaz told her colleagues that ignoring their constituents’ opposition will jeopardize prospects for winning voter approval next year to build a new library building in Grape Day Park.
8. North Coastal Corridor projects commence
Last December, a series of long anticipated rail, freeway, pedestrian and bicycle projects in the Interstate 5 corridor kicked off, as Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments held a ceremonial groundbreaking to celebrate the start of the projects.
But the impacts of “Build NCC,” the name of the first package of improvements that are part of the 40-year North Coast Corridor program, became evident this year.
Build NCC is a $700 million slate of projects that includes the widening of I-5 with the addition of a single express lane in each direction between State Route 78 and Lomas Santa Fe Drive, double tracking the rail line across the San Elijo and Batiquitos lagoons and the construction of bicycle and pedestrian bridges and connected trails, as well as a wide range of wetlands and lagoon restoration projects.
Officials gathered in late November to kick off the $102 million San Elijo lagoon restoration, a project that officials said was two decades in the making.
And in December, a Caltrans officials told the Encinitas City Council that double tracking of the rail line is halfway complete.
Among the most controversial elements of the project has turned out to be the Cardiff segment of the bridge and trail network, known as the Coastal Rail Trail.
After years of debate over whether to place the segment east of the railroad tracks along San Elijo Avenue or west of Coast Highway 101 on a popular existing biking and walking path, the California Coastal Commission weighed in and said that the trail will run on the east side.
The Coastal Commission’s decision ran counter to the wishes of Encinitas, the regional planning agency, SANDAG, and hundreds of residents who protested the east side alignment.
A smaller group of residents hailed the Coastal Commission’s decision as the right call.
The first phase of Build NCC is expected to be completed by 2020. Ultimately, the $6.5 billion North Coast Corridor Program will stretch 27 miles from La Jolla to Oceanside.
9. Encinitas bucks North County cities to support AB 805
State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher’s crusade for sweeping changes at the embattled regional planning agency got a boost from an unlikely source — the city of Encinitas.
In September, the Encinitas City Council broke ranks from the rest of its North County agencies to support Gonzalez’s Assembly Bill 805, a suite of measures aimed at reforming San Diego Association of Governments, better known as SANDAG.
According to a news release from Gonzalez Fletcher’s office, the bill would, among other things, “change the voting structures of SANDAG, the Metropolitan Transit System and the North County Transit District to better reflect the populations they serve; create an Audit Committee that includes members of the public that oversees an independent auditor; require that SANDAG provide annual reports to the state about the region’s transit issues; permit MTS and NCTD to approach voters to raise revenue for better transit; require skilled and trained workers are employed on local transportation projects; and insist that regional transportation plans address greenhouse gas reduction rules and the needs of disadvantaged communities.”
SANDAG has been mired in controversy over reports that its officials made major discrepancies in revenue projections associated with a failed 2016 sales tax measure and hid or deleted emails to avoid public scrutiny. SANDAG’s longtime Executive Director Gary Gallegos resigned in August amid the mounting controversy.
The four council members who supported the bill — Mayor Catherine Blakespear, Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz and council members Tasha Boerner Horvath and Joe Mosca — said they supported the bill because it would allow for NCTD to put a taxing measure on the ballot independent of SANDAG.
Mark Muir voted against supporting the bill. The longtime Republican sided with his colleagues, who argued that the bill siphoned away power from smaller cities and gave it to San Diego and Chula Vista.
Gov. Jerry Brown ultimately signed the controversial bill into law. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2018.
10. North County cities mull split from SDG&E with community choice
North coastal cities are considering a move toward energy independence from San Diego Gas & Electric Co., with Solana Beach leading the way.
Solana Beach in October became the first in the county to begin the implementation of a community choice aggregation program that allows the city to buy and sell energy and gives residents an energy option other than SDG&E
CCAs, which are also referred to as community choice energy, are entities formed by public agencies that buy power on the open market, choosing the source of the power based on the community’s choice.
CCA is considered an effective way to reach state-mandated greenhouse gas emission reductions and provide customers with potentially lower rates than investor-owned utilities such as SDG&E.
The city won’t own power poles or utility lines, nor would it deliver the energy. Transmission and distribution services will remain the responsibility of San Diego Gas & Electric.
Solana Beach, with its October vote, became the 14th CCA in the state.
Since 2011 Solana Beach has been discussing CCA, which allows cities — either on their own as Solana Beach is doing or as part of a group or agency such as a joint powers authority — to buy or generate renewable electricity for their jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside and Del Mar voted in July to draft a request for proposals for a joint technical study that would assess the feasibility of a community choice aggregate in Encinitas and partnering cities.