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How Similar Cities Function with Voters' Say in Growth 

If Measure R passes, Malibu could join the likes of towns like Del Mar and Escondido, where voters head to the polls over major proposed developments.
By Matt Sanderson / Special to The Malibu Times, October 29, 2014

The coastal Southern California cities of Del Mar, Encinitas and Escondido have enacted measures allowing citizens to have a voice in city planning, and on Nov. 4 Malibu voters will decide whether to allow a similar process on proposed commercial developments with Measure R.

For Measure B, passed in 1986 in Del Mar, proposals on project sites of 25,000 square feet or more or a building of 11,500 square feet or more triggers a voter and City Council review for compliance. Measure R, if approved, will allow Malibu voters to review proposals greater than 20,000 square feet. Unlike the other measures, however, Measure R carries additional regulations over the percentage of chain stores allowed in shopping centers (30%).

Del Mar city planner Adam Birnbaum told The Times that since Measure B passed, three projects have fallen under the process: the former Del Mar Hotel (now L’Auberge Del Mar), the Del Mar Plaza and the Garden Del Mar. The first two were being planned when Measure B went before the voters. The initiative applied and the projects were scaled back.

Many years later in 2008, the Garden Del Mar proposal went through the Measure B process and was approved but never implemented because the property owner reportedly went bankrupt. Since then, the site has been vacant and purchased by a new company.

“What the community said was, they were concerned that larger developments would change the character of downtown, so they wanted citizens to have a role,” Birnbaum said. “And the measure requires these specific plans so you put specific regulations, land use policies and operational parameters in place for those larger projects, to protect the community.”

Birnbaum noted Measure B allows property owners to propose development standards that are different, larger in the many cases, than other applicable zoning laws.

“So in downtown, our central commercial zone, the floor-area-ratio is 45 percent,” he said. “Through the Measure B specific plan process, someone can propose one with a higher floor area ratio, but when they propose parameters that otherwise exceed applicable zoning, they have to demonstrate a benefit to the community, through acceptable public benefits.”

Malibu’s city code allows for 15 percent floor-area-ratio in commercial developments and up to 20 if the proponent offers a public benefit or service.

With the L’Auberge, Birnbaum said a significant donation was made for Del Mar’s library. Other donations included scenic view corridors, public and semi-public zones, such as an amphitheater. For Del Mar Plaza, a greater number of stores were proposed than would have otherwise been allowed, with a far greater floor area ratio, but also with acceptable public benefits and public view decks.

“Instead of being devoted to close commercial [it was] space left for public enjoyment,” he said.

The potential loss of a small food market was a concern when Del Mar Plaza was proposed, so 9,000 square feet was reserved in the development period of 25 years to be reserved solely for use as a market.

“So, it’s a quid pro quo,” Birnbaum said. “A greater development proposal request for a benefit need in the community, which is an integral part for Measure B. And we don’t have a ton of lots; we have many smaller lots in downtown. If someone were to purchase multiple lots and combine them, Measure B would apply.”

The growth measure in Encinitas, approved two years ago, is broader than proposed commercial development sizes. It requires voter approval for “major amendments” to things like city zoning maps, any increases in the number of permitted dwellings on a residential lot, removing agricultural or open space zoning, increases in maximum building height or changes in residential to non-residential use.

Land use attorney Everett DeLano aided in drafting Encinitas’ Proposition A, and said they based its language around the draft measure that was passed in Yorba Linda years ago.

“You’ve got to tailor it to a particular city,” he said. “You can’t just pluck.”

Aside from the intense scrutiny coupled with the celebrity and affluence that sets Malibu’s land use squabbles apart from most cities and towns, especially as evidenced during Sunday’s Measure R debate at City Hall between proponent Rob Reiner and Measure R opponent Steve Soberoff, these slow growth initiatives are comparable for the region’s coastal communities, DeLano says.

“One thing we said about these kinds of measures is ‘why not give the voters a chance to vote?’” he said. “Sometimes it’s a perception of reality and sometimes it’s not. I’ve done land use and environmental litigation for years and one thing I hear is, ‘Boy, the City Council is not responsive to our concerns.’”

Soboroff disagreed with that argument on Sunday, saying taking a large development to the voters skirts the city’s current process.

“There is a process in Malibu. It’s a public process. You have to go through all kinds of hearings but this initiative went around the entire public process. There is not one public hearing,” he said. “It doesn’t go in front of one planning expert, it doesn’t go in front of one engineering expert, it doesn’t go in front of the Planning Commission. It goes right to the voters, and that’s the problem.”

Under the proposed language of Measure R, “Following adoption of the specific plan or plans for these projects by the City Council, the plan or plans shall be placed on the ballot, as soon as possible, for approval by the voters.”

Reiner argued that just three people in City Council have the power to make development decisions, which is what he and other Measure R proponents want changed.

“The problem is [with a five-person council]… the way it works out is you’ve got three people [who] can decide what happens for everybody in Malibu,” he said.

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