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Competing needs on limited land pit assisted living against affordable housing


ENCINITAS — They will not be strawberry fields forever, but what should they become?

The 16.9-acre Cardiff parcel dubbed “Strawberry Fields” was a potential site for affordable housing until May, when the Encinitas City Council removed it from the list.

In part, because the Strawberry Fields site is currently under consideration for an assisted-living facility, the California Department of Housing and Community Development suggested that more viable parcels for high-density housing be identified instead.

City Councilman Tony Kranz imagines that similar site conflicts will arise over time as Encinitas attempts to become compliant with state housing laws. At the May 23 council meeting, Kranz identified what he saw as the city’s “competing needs” between building affordable units and accommodating senior assisted living.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear explained in an interview, “We have limited land and are under heavy pressure” by the state to get affordable housing built. Assisted-living facilities, as institutional rather than residential developments, cannot be required to include a certain percentage of affordable units, Blakespear said. As such, they unfortunately do not help the city to reach its allotment of high-density housing units for a range of incomes.

Kranz suggested to his fellow council members, “In the interest of reserving our residentially zoned parcels for this challenge of finding more parcels to upzone, it just seems to me that the time is now to reconsider our current zoning code, which allows assisted-living facilities in any residential zone.” He advocated for having the Planning Commission and staff study the feasibility of changing the zoning code to only allow residential-care facilities in areas designated as public/semi-public.

Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath expressed reservations. She said, “We have a silver tsunami that’s coming at us, and we’re going to have to house people who are from our communities in a place where they can be safe and still be close to family and friends.” She elaborated that there was “very little public/semi-public land in Encinitas,” so Kranz’s suggestion would act like “a de facto moratorium.”

Public/semi-public refers to land on which a governmental agency operates facilities like school districts and fire departments. The designation includes land where public utilities that are privately owned operate and identifies a few other allowable uses.

Not counting facilities with fewer than seven units, there are currently 830 units in Encinitas dedicated to assisted living, dementia care, independent living and other forms of residential care.

Councilman Mark Muir asked which assisted-living facilities were in Encinitas’ queue to be developed and how those projects would be affected by a zoning change. In response, city attorney Glenn Sabine referred to a case dating to 1979 that he said set a strong precedent.

Sabine explained, “There would have to be reasonable reliance on a validly issued building permit and substantial construction performed in furtherance of that. So what it really means is permitted sticks in the ground to get a vested right.” In other words, developers would not have much recourse if zoning changes were made pre-construction.

Complicating matters is the way any future zoning changes regarding senior-care housing could be perceived. Mark Faulkner with the development company Greystar, which is under contract with the Yasuda family to build an assisted-living facility on the Strawberry Fields site should it be approved, issued firm warnings to the council during public comment.

Faulkner said, “Any defacto rezoning could be construed as a taking. It could violate Fair Housing Act, and it could be described as discriminatory against senior citizens by the city of Encinitas.” Faulkner said he and the Yasuda family, who are the land’s owners, realized that the council was only suggesting further study and that no decisions had been made, but he wanted to “make our position clear that we have serious concerns.”

According to Brenda Wisneski, development services director for Encinitas, Greystar’s application “is currently under review and is considered incomplete pending additional information.”

Another representative of Greystar told the council that Doug Gibson of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, who could not attend the meeting, would support assisted living on the Strawberry Fields site. Strawberry Fields is located east of Manchester Avenue near the lagoon. The conservancy, however, would oppose an affording-housing development there because of the higher density and greater traffic.

Blakespear replied, “That’s pretty much every neighbor. It’s always about density and the impacts of traffic.” She laughed wearily as the meeting neared its fifth hour.

At the end of the discussion, the council unanimously passed a motion for staff to create an agenda item for the Planning Commission to consider zoning changes for residential-care facilities “in the public/semi-public zone or a zone more suitable.” The conditional-use permitting requirement currently in the zoning code would remain intact.

It’s unclear when the commission will weigh in on the matter.