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A home under construction along 13th Street in Del Mar, where city leaders are grappling with how to implement new state housing legislation related to housing in commercial zones as well as accessory dwelling units. Photo by Laura Place
A home under construction along 13th Street in Del Mar, where city leaders are grappling with how to implement new state housing legislation related to housing in commercial zones as well as accessory dwelling units. Photo by Laura Place
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Del Mar City Council discusses new state housing legislation

DEL MAR — After two years of entirely virtual meetings, the Del Mar City Council returned to council chambers at City Hall on Monday for its first in-person meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

And they didn’t waste any time getting down to business, spending a good portion of the meeting discussing the local impacts of new housing legislation taking effect in 2023.

City Principal Planner Amanda Lee explained how several new pieces of legislation, particularly those focused on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, and multiunit housing developments in commercial areas, directly conflict with the city’s own development standards and the site-specific development standards in the Coastal Act.

“The overall theme is an override of local control, which is unfortunate … it puts us in a really awkward position,” Lee said. “There’s just too much coming at us too quickly, and they haven’t thought about how it impacts a coastal city.”

Specifically, laws that took effect Jan. 1, including Assembly bills 2221 and 916 and Senate Bill 897, will allow for taller detached ADUs of up to 16 feet above the grade and up to 18 feet if on a multistory, multi-unit development that meets transit proximity standards.

New state housing laws taking effect this year will allow for higher density housing projects in the city of Del Mar’s commercial zones. Photo by Laura Place
New state housing laws taking effect this year will allow for higher density housing projects in the city of Del Mar’s commercial zones. Photo by Laura Place

These “granny flats” can also reach up to 25 feet tall or two stories if attached to a primary residence, and encroachments into front yard setbacks are permitted if needed to accommodate units of 800 square feet. They can now also be connected to a detached garage on a property.

City leaders and many residents have long expressed frustration with the rise (in height and number) of ADUs. They can cause blockage of multi-story coastal views and, more often than not, are used to house family members or to up a property’s value rather than add to the area’s rental housing inventory, they claim.

In 2018, the city launched a program to incentivize the construction of ADUs for affordable housing by offering exemptions to development standards, but few residents have been biting. As of late 2022, the program has led to one deed-restricted ADU.

Officials now worry that these incentives are no longer relevant as the state continues to loosen restrictions on ADUs.

“All of this is focused on accommodating lower-income units, but they [the state] are blocking us from doing that,” Lee said. “It’s a no-brainer for them [residents] to do it because it’s free value to add to your property.”

This poses a problem for a city on thin ice with the state regarding affordable housing, with their 6th Cycle Housing Element aiming to provide 15 deed-restricted ADUs by 2029. At this point, city officials are still awaiting certification from the state on their housing element.

“We spent a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money in this community developing our Sixth Cycle Housing Element to meet our state-imposed housing obligations,” Worden said. “This other stuff … is just other units coming into our town with no guidance, no structure, no nothing — it doesn’t feel right.”

Other laws set to take effect July 1 will allow for increased density and strengthen by-right processing requirements — a nightmare regulation for Del Mar and other local cities which restricts discretionary approval — for housing projects offering the prevailing labor wage in commercial zones.

Assembly Bill 2011 will permit increased height and density based on the street width in commercial zones. City staff said that along Camino Del Mar, for example, the 100-foot-wide street allows for a density of 20 to 50 units per acre and a height of 45 feet in applicable housing projects — a significant change from the 20-unit-per-acre density the city had already been working with.

Overall, the city hopes to obtain more guidance from the state on balancing these new housing laws with these local coastal laws. Lee said the state’s direction on ADUs has not been updated since late 2020.

“When the State passes these laws, they are not considering implementation needs at the local level.  Lee said that this shifts the burden of navigating the inherent conflicts/uncertainty and its associated legal risk down to the local jurisdictions,” Lee said.

As they’ve done in the past, city officials are planning to request that the state grant them exceptions to these new regulations and hope to have the California Coastal Commission’s support.

“When we confer with the Coastal Commission, they’re saying, ‘We haven’t even gotten there; we don’t have guidance on this.’ They may be able to jump in and back us up on this. At this point, they haven’t done that yet,” Lee said.

Coastal Commission representatives did not respond to inquiries from The Coast News about the city’s desire for their support.

The City Council will continue this discussion by reviewing possible additional incentives for affordable housing construction at their upcoming Jan. 23 meeting.

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