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Encinitas tightens housing development rules
By Barbara Henry, July 17, 2014

ENCINITAS — Opponents of the state’s density bonus law, which lets builders squeeze more units into their projects than would otherwise be allowed, celebrated late Wednesday as the Encinitas City Council tightened some city development standards.

Most of the revisions garnered unanimous support from council members, who said they wanted to act now because community dissatisfaction with some recent housing projects that fall under the law has been so intense.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, who is often described as favoring pro-environment policies, said many of the projects have been “harmful to the community” and the city review process has been poorly handled.

“This is the time to fix that, and I want to say it explicitly,” she said, mentioning that there are eight density bonus projects now under city review.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who is often described as being pro-development, said she also saw a need to make changes now, though she said she worried the city might later be sued.

She said it was evident that residents wanted the changes as she looked around the council meeting, which was still crowded as the clock approached midnight Wednesday.

“(There’s) community will to make changes to our density bonus policies … I’m willing to honor that will and listen until the point that we may be forced (legally) to make changes,” she said.

The state’s density bonus law allows developers to put in more units than might normally be permitted on a given lot, if the developers agree to set aside some of those units for low-income housing. Supporters say the law creates much-needed housing for needy families; opponents argue it’s been abused by developers looking for ways to skirt municipal zoning regulations.

On Wednesday night, council members heard from both groups.

Michael McSweeney of the Building Industry Association of San Diego called the law the “one tool left in the toolbox” to create low-income housing, and urged the council to create a stakeholders group to draft changes to city policies, saying, “I think there’s a better way to get there from here.”

Laura Nunn of the San Diego Housing Federation said any additional housing for low-income families, however small, provides a huge community benefit.

“By providing even one unit … you’re helping make a better and more diverse community,” she said.

People from several Encinitas neighborhoods countered that projects they’ve experienced firsthand have made no effort to fit within their existing community’s character and have provided little in the way of low-income housing. They showed three-dimensional drawings of projects where the proposed two-story homes would dwarf the existing neighborhoods of one-story homes, and urged the council to act immediately.

“It’s nice to see that we’re making progress now,” said environmental attorney Everett DeLano, who recently won a judgment against the city regarding its approval of the Desert Rose density bonus project in Olivenhain. “It’s disappointing that it’s taken this long.”

Attorney Marco Gonzalez, who has represented the Desert Rose developers, told the council that he didn’t like the state law, but said the city’s proposed regulatory changes may simply provide “more work for lawyers.”

On Wednesday night, the council unanimously agreed to four proposed changes, including one that requires city planning employees to “round down” rather than up when calculating a project’s allowable housing density. The council also voted 4-1, with Gaspar opposed, to require that low-income units within the proposed developments be closer in size to the market rate units.

The council agreed to make the changes effective immediately.


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