ENCINITAS — The City Council voted 2-2 not to affirm a staff recommendation to accept the Encinitas Union school district’s request to rezone the Pacific View site at the Aug. 17 meeting, with Councilwomen Maggie Houlihan and Teresa Barth opposed and Mayor James Bond and Councilman Jerome Stocks voting in favor.
Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar recused herself because she reasoned that she wasn’t a council member when the issue first began, much to the dismay of at least two council members and a public speaker.
Houlihan asked the city attorney for clarification about the circumstances for recusal and questioned whether Gaspar met the standard. City Attorney Glen Sabine said since no legal precedent existed for recusal barring a conflict of interest, it was up to the individual member to decide whether they were competent enough to participate in the matter.
Bond added that when he first decided to run for City Council he didn’t know where city hall was located, but that didn’t preclude him from voting on matters before the council.
Gaspar didn’t change her view on being recused. “I have to stick to my principles and step out tonight,” she said.
The decision not to take action on the staff’s proposal came as a surprise to many in the packed City Council chambers. Some expected the council to agree with the Planning Commission’s recommendation from last year to change the 2.8-acre parcel of land from public/ semi-public use to residential.
Located on Third Street between E and F streets, the school is surrounded by commercial buildings and smaller homes,. The school was closed in 2003 because of declining enrollment; school officials claim the building has fallen into a state of disrepair.
The property was gifted to the city in 1883 as a school site. A fact that several of the dozen speakers brought up during public comments before the council voted.
The original schoolhouse is located to the west of the property and houses the Encinitas Historical Society.
While several proposals have been tossed around regarding the future of the site, none have been met with success. In 2005, an advisory committee was created, consisting of various stakeholders. An initial proposal to build a medical complex with office space and condos was met with disapproval by the downtown community.
After affirming its earlier decision in January of this year, the district threatened to sue the city. Yet, district officials entered into a tolling agreement in June with the city that allowed for negotiations over the rezoning proposal to proceed without a lawsuit.
Dr. Tim Baird, the district’s superintendent, was visibly disappointed by the council’s latest action. “I don’t understand their rationale,” he said after the meeting.
Baird addressed the council.
“I’m here to encourage you to work with us on this revised proposal,” he said. “We think this is what’s best for the city of Encinitas, the district and the Pacific View neighborhood,” Baird said. He conceded that certain details still needed to be worked out but said the district had already made concessions. What is best for the city?
The district agreed to relocate the historic schoolhouse to Third St. on a 50-by 100-foot lot, with a total of 15 to 17 residential lots of the same size on the remainder of the site. It agreed to identify exactly what “beach cottage” design is and require the potential buyer to adhere to those specifications during development.
The district also agreed that grading would remain compatible with the surrounding vicinity and that it would expand Fourth St. for public use. The real sticking point came when staff announced that the district would require a covenant prohibiting the state’s density bonus law, not allowing additional homes to be built on the site, according to law.
Some council members and the public doubted a covenant on private property could supersede state law. Sabine reminded the audience that the law only applies when the developer asks for it to be activated, rather than a mandate to build more housing.
Project land use changes, or zoning changes, which qualifies as a specific plan amendment, are required to go before voters, according to the general plan, unless a super majority of the council vote against the rezoning. Last night’s vote translated into a “no action” vote, thus the previous decision not to change the zoning still stands.
Several residents voiced their opposition to the rezoning proposal and some offered alternatives. Don McPherson, a Manhattan Beach resident who owns property across from the old school house said a paid parking area in downtown would generate enough revenue for the city to pay for the property. “My information shows that the potential is there and the city should examine it,” he said.
Neighbor Joe McNalley said he realizes the schools need money but that it was “premature to rezone” so close to the update of the city’s general plan.
“It would have a significant chilling effect to just sell off this asset,” he said. Sarah Garfield, who lives close to the site, said the district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to figure out what to do with the property.
She suggested the district partner with the city to create a nonprofit to solicit both public and private funds to preserve the site. “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” she said.
“It’s just wrong to sell the city, the land and the children short,” said longtime resident Kathleen Lees.
Sabine said a 2007 state education code dictated that if certain prerequisites are met then the city “shall” zone the property consistent with the surrounding uses and the general and specific plans. “This is mandatory language,” Sabine said.
The courts have upheld conditional, or contract zoning, according to Sabine. But it was not a settled matter specifically with density bonus law, because it’s not “expressed” in the law. “There are no guarantees,” he said.
“I think this is one of the most significant issues to face our city in the last 40 or 50 years,” Houlihan said, joining the meeting via teleconference due to ill health. “This has become a very contentious issue,” she said. “It’s made it very difficult when we’re under the threat of litigation to talk to people about this,” she said.
She compared the site to “the goose that laid the golden egg.” She said the long-term benefit of such a site would be lost if it was rezoned. Houlihan said possible uses for the property could be an “economic engine.”
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she added.
“My vote is not based on a whole lot of emotion,” Bond said. “What I’m concerned about is I don’t know what the school board’s thinking, what’s going to happen after this?”
“I really feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place,” Barth said. She claimed the city’s lack of due diligence in getting the property appraised when the district offered it for sale to the city at a cost of $10 million put her at a disadvantage.
“This isn’t a blank piece of land, it’s our heritage,” she said. She said the findings that dictated the council’s first vote not to approve a zone change were still valid, especially the Coastal Act.
Stocks predicted that the courts would ultimately decide the zoning if the council did not take action. “Let’s hope I’m completely wrong,” he said.
The Coastal Commission must ultimately approve any zoning change because of the proximity to the beach.