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Encinitas Divided Over Growth

Evening Edition

Encinitas residents collected enough signatures for a special election next month. Prop A would give voters the power to deny any future development that goes above the city’s 30 foot height limit. KPBS reporter Alison St John says the debate highlights a divide over how the community should grow in the future.

Aired 5/28/13 on KPBS News.

The debate over Encinitas' Proposition A highlights a divide over how communities should grow in the future.

Encinitas residents will vote in a special election on June 18th on Proposition A, an initiative that would give voters the power to strictly control future development.

Downtown Old Encinitas is full of life on warm summer evenings. People, children and dogs mingle on the sidewalks along Highway 101, enjoying the cafes, the shops and the sunshine.

Bruce Ehlers has lived in this city for almost 30 years.

"There’s certainly been growth," he said, "but the one thing we’ve managed to do quite well is hold on to our small town community character."

Ehlers, a former city planning commissioner, is the main spokesman for Proposition A, Encinitas’ "Right to Vote" initiative.

“We want anything that’s over 30 feet to go to a vote of the people,“ Ehlers explained. “That’s all we want. Likewise, higher densities, we want them to go to a vote of the people.”

Although the current elected city council is less pro-development than in recent years, Ehlers, like many residents, doesn’t trust future council members to stand up to developer interests.

“We end up with developer money chasing development opportunities, resulting in taller and taller buildings and more and more density, “ he said, “not for the benefit of the community but for the benefit of the developers.”

Bruce Ehlers at Pacific Station in Encinitas, May 2103

Pointing to new three-story apartments designed around a courtyard with cafes and shops like Whole Foods below, Ehlers explained that developers use the state’s density bonus laws to break the city’s height limits.

“For example, Pacific Station was built to three stories because it has affordable units,” he said, “so they used the excuse of affordable units to add extra density and extra cars and traffic.”

But Encinitas Mayor Teresa Barth believes the Pacific Station development represents a new kind of community.

Encinitas Mayor Teresa Barth, May 2013

“All of the units there have sold, so obviously, people like to live in that environment,” she said. “Whole Foods is busy all the time and people are sitting there, having lunch.”

She thinks the new development represents changing trends in the way people want to live.

“Our demographics are changing,” she explained. “The fastest growing group in our region is the seniors, people who already live here, people who are going to get out of the suburban house because the kids have all gone and they’re moving into a smaller apartment or townhouse, and they all want to live downtown. They and the millennials all want the same thing.”

Barth said both the older and the younger generations want to be able to go out their door and walk or bike to a grocery store, a restaurant, the library or the beach.

She, like the rest of the city council, opposes Proposition A as too restrictive on future kinds of development.

Some members of the current council originally supported the initiative, but after a consultant reported the height limit could have unintended consequences, they too are looking for alternative ways to incorporate public input into the planning process.

Regional planners estimate the population of Encinitas will grow from about 60,000 to about 75,000 people in the next 30 years. Like the rest of the region, the city will have to take its share of growth and provide somewhere for those people to live.

But Bruce Ehlers doesn’t buy the numbers.

“We don’t believe those numbers are true,” he said. “We think our government should represent the vast majority of citizens in Encinitas and push back and say 'hey, we aren’t going to grow that much, we don’t agree with you.'”

Ehlers opposes increased density even in New Encinitas on El Camino Real, because of the traffic.

Leucadia Town Hall meeting, Encinitas library, May 2013

At a recent community town hall meeting, Ehlers was applauded as he urged residents to vote for the initiative and protect the quality of life and their small town community character.

Architect Steve Shackleton, on the other hand, argued against the initiative, suggesting that giving people input on a new city general plan update is a better way to go.

“The city is re-evaluating different approaches to our housing needs,” he said. “Our general plan is still in process and wide open for anyone’s input and ideas.”

However, Encinitas has been working on its general plan update for three years, and has spent more than $1 million without reaching a consensus on how the city should grow.

What was supposed to be a two year process resulted in tumultuous opposition and draft proposals had to be pulled off the table. The plan has not been updated since 1989, three years after the city was incorporated.

Mayor Barth said the city council is committed to finalizing a new general plan and putting it to the voters next year.

She thinks passing Prop. A would backfire, by making it so difficult for developers that they will opt to use state density bonus laws to get what they want. State laws trump local elections, she said.

“It will probably, in my opinion, force more developers to go the route of the density bonus because we’re going to make things so restrictive and add costs by requiring an election.”

Barth said she understands that people are worried about losing the character of the community they love, but even if the city doesn’t grow as much as predicted, the kind of housing people want is changing.

“You know, ballot box planning doesn’t always work,” she said. “It rarely does, in all honesty, because planning is a very complex process. “

However, people are right to worry, Barth said, about a law that allows the city council to amend the General Plan with a four-fifths vote. The city council voted last week to give up that power. But opponents retort that future councils could just as easily come in and undo it.

“Which is why we are also committed to putting that on the 2014 ballot to be ratified by the public," Barth said.

But there’s no way of telling what voters will decide June 18th.

Encinitas voters face the same dilemma facing many San Diego communities: how to give today’s residents a say in how their community grows without making it so difficult that tomorrow’s residents cannot find an affordable place to live?

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Avatar for user 'Leucadian'

Leucadian | June 1, 2013 at 4:38 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

Encinitas, or some other government entity, should take surveys at mixed use development projects, such as Pacific Station, which has made parking downtown more challenging, after eliminating 7 street parking spaces. John DeWald, Pacific Station developer, dumped construction dirt on Leucadia beaches when excavating the parking garages. That dirt clouded our beaches for weeks, then his firm was "self-awarded" for so-called "sand replenishment," for poor quality dirt, NOT sand.

Such surveys should determine how many people who live in these types of mixed use, high density developments still commute to work, to stores, or to recreation, how many average trips per day, by motor vehicles, as well as how many units are occupied full time, and how many cars per residential unit.

DeWald didn't create enough underground parking for all the residents, giving only one parking space, each, for affordable units. Pacific Station doesn't provide enough parking for residents and all of the offices, restaurants and retail stores that are there, now, even without full commercial capacity, and without full time occupancy of many of the condo units. Perhaps all of the residential units have sold, but how many of them are being rented out, or are being resold, now? The architectural design, facing the train, is not aesthetically pleasing.

Moreover, the original restrictions of our General Plan, according to Policy 7.10 were simple. Portions of Encinitas Municipal Code and Specific Plans,which were adopted against the wishes of the people, discounting our input and feedback through Specific Plan Action Review Committees, SPARCs and Community Advisory Boards, CABs. The will of the people, including our desire to be able to vote on upzoning was overruled or "nullified" by the Planning Dept., the Planning Commission and a supermajority of Council who raised the height limit, for example, for the North 101 Specific Plan to 33 ft, 3 stories, rather than the General Plan's 30 ft., two stories, not including basements, the upper limits which residents wanted the City to uphold.

A supermajority of Council, overruled the community's expressed desire to be able to upzone and raise the height limits through a public vote. Passage of Prop A will rectify that. Pre-existing development would be grandfathered with vested property rights, including the right to remodel. Historic structures such as La Paloma Theater or Self Realization Fellowship's Lotus would be preserved. One of the Boathouses could still become a museum with a minor or major use permit without a public vote's being required to rezone that property, which is highly subsidized by the City of Encinitas through our affordable housing funds, through a foundation, Encinitas Preservation Association with Peder Norby and Paul Ecke III on its Board of Directors. Norby is currently a well-paid contractor for the City, acting as 101 Coordinator, with no academic training in urban planning.

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Avatar for user 'Leucadian'

Leucadian | June 1, 2013 at 4:57 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

Encinitas tends to make rules and regulations more and more complicated so that Council must be "spoon-fed" what to think, what actions to take, by staff, contractors and outside consultants who have a vested interest in increasing density, promoting more and more development for more development fees, property and sales taxes to fund ever-increasing unfunded pension liabilities, skyrocketing operating and maintenance expenditures, and escalating Capital Improvement Project costs, all increasing at much more than the rate of inflation!

Council's recent vote to eliminate the super majority Council vote instead of a public vote for upzoning only pertains to the "significant public benefit" exception. First of all, there is no guarantee that the new ordinance will be on the ballot for the November 2014 General Election.

Secondly, huge loopholes are not being eliminated by the ordinance pertaining to Policy 3.12 of our General Plan with respect to council's overriding a public vote by a simple majority though categorization of intensity, and definition of intensity of use within different categories, the less-than five-acre exception, and the ability to raise height limits beyond the 30 ft., two stories. These are all exceptions allowing Council, by a simple majority, to bypass a public vote, as currently referenced in our General Plan, which loopholes would also be eliminated by Passage of Prop A, but NOT by Council's drafted ordinance.

Again, the general public wanted to adhere to the 30 ft., two-story density and height limits through our input on Specific Plan Action Review Committees and Community Advisory Boards; our feedback was discounted by a supermajority vote by past Councilmembers. Current Council also doesn't trust the intelligence and understanding of the people to be able to vote, just as they apparently do not trust their own judgment, but believe they must rely on staff, consultants and outside contractors to act as so-called experts, spoon feeding them information on what to think and how to vote.

It is completely illogical to claim that density bonus developments would increase. Every single developer who wants to increase height and relax set-back standards, etc., already does invoke density bonus State mandates to do so. A few developers who want to develop within current City zoning standards, do so.

The Desert Rose development, which the Planning Commission turned down, but which Council approved after an inequitable Public Hearing, wherein the community wasn't equally represented as Respondent, opposing Applicant/Appellant, the developer. The Planning Commission's decision and the Desert Rose Neighbors were discounted. In this case, now being litigated in Court because the City failed to require full Environmental Impact Report review, there are significant questions of public health and safety raised, which should supersede density bonus allowances. Please Vote YES on A!

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Avatar for user 'queludian'

queludian | September 5, 2013 at 9:41 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

What about all of the de-facto hotels, in the form of "vacation rentals"? Home owners are allowed to rent out their homes for $2000 and up, a week! What does that do to rent prices? What does that do to our sense of community, when you have new "neighbors" every week and your old friends and neighbors, that you grew up with have to move to San Marcos, Vista or Oceanside because they can no longer afford to stay in their home town??? The city council needs to address this issue before any new residential units are built! Also, "mixed use" is just an excuse for developers to put residential units where they shouldn't be. How could any of this be good for quality of life???

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