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The Carlsbad City Council approved an update to the city's Local Coastal Program, which includes a zone change for a disputed Ponto Park. File photo
The Carlsbad City Council approved an update to the city's Local Coastal Program, which includes changes to policies related to the zoning designation of Ponto Park. File photo
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Carlsbad council updates coastal plan, battle over Ponto Park continues

CARLSBAD — A marathon session highlighted by a debate over a proposed coastal park ended with the adoption of the city’s updated Local Coastal Program on Oct. 12, officially changing the policies related to the zoning designation of the disputed Ponto site.

The Carlsbad City Council passed the update, 3-2, during Tuesday’s meeting, with Councilmembers Priya Bhat-Patel and Teresa Acosta voting no. Bhat-Patel said she wanted to approve certain aspects but wanted more outreach regarding the 11-acre property at Ponto, which is designated residential-commercial.

The update also included land-use plan changes to both the site of the now decommissioned Encina Power Station and Carlsbad Strawberry Fields. Both locations will be changed to visitor commercial-open space.

However, the city’s update must be certified by the California Coastal Commission, which is expected to take about two years, according to Jennifer Jesser, the city’s senior planner.

“We’re trying to figure out how everyone can be best represented,” Bhat-Patel said. “We’re definitely listening. I feel there is a lot of mistrust and how do we make sure folks understand where we’re at. And what we can and can’t do within the law.”

More than 20 residents voiced opposition to the city’s designation of the park, arguing the city is not following its general and growth management plans and pointing to park deficiencies in the southwest quadrant.

Some of those residents also asked, and demanded, the council put off the approval of the Local Coastal Plan designation until more discussion and engagement with the property’s owner. Outreach efforts have gone back years and the council has discussed the land numerous times over the past three years.

Jeff Murphy, the city’s community development director, said the focus for residents is on oversight in written language from the 2015 General Plan update. Murphy said the city made the changes to be consistent with both plans, which were approved by the Coastal Commission in 2016.

“The General Plan allows residential and commercial,” Murphy added. “This proposal is to reconcile what the council approved and 2015 and Coastal Commission approved in 2016. The applicant has a legal right to pursue.”

Eric Lardy, the city’s principal planner, said the landowner already has an active application for the development of the property, which is allowed under both the previous Local Coastal Program and the latest version, and the owner has a legal right to develop the property.

Additionally, Michele Staples, attorney at Jackson Tidus law firm and representing the property owner, once again warned the city about damages to her client. Staples noted the city left the property out of its Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) designation to meet its state-mandated affordable housing goals, which in turn devalued her client’s property.

According to Staples, the landowner, who is proposing 136 residential units and several commercial buildings on the parcel, had an agreement with a developer until the July meeting where the council left the property off the RHNA designation. Staples submitted a letter to council outlining her concerns (see page 129).

The attorney said the only action the city could take is eminent domain, which she believes is illegal and unconstitutional in this particular case.

Also, staff updated the council about the proposed Carlsbad Boulevard realignment, which would shift the road east from Palomar Airport Road to La Costa Avenue to protect against sea-level rise. As a result, it would add 62 acres of parkland for the city and to the southwest quadrant.

“I look at this potential is just magnified by 10,” Councilman Peder Norby said. “We can do smart planning through General Plan and Growth Management Plan.”

Outside of the park, the council also heard updates regarding the staff’s plan to manage climate change and sea-level rise. The plan includes strategies to mitigate sea-level rise, such as a tiered plan featuring adaption strategies, protecting existing and new development and seawalls where necessary.

Jesser, though, said the city opposes the Coastal Commission’s definition of “development,” which is anything prior to 1977 when the Coastal Commission Act was enacted.

Don Schmitz, a coastal consultant for Smart Coast California, said his organization is in favor of the city’s LCP update, also noting Smart Coast is an ally, especially when negotiating with the commission.

According to Schmitz, several cities across the state are pushing back against the commission’s modifications and suggested modifications for Local Coastal Programs.

Schmitz said tools such as managed retreat make sense in certain places and other strategies, like kelp forestation and artificial reefs, will help protect against natural erosion, along with beach nourishment and seawalls.

“We agree with the definition of existing development and your staff nailed it,” he added. “This is a hill to die for a number of cities. It would redefine for protections.”