ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council approved a high-density Leucadia housing development Wednesday on a contested site included in the city’s Housing Element Update, overturning the Planning Commission’s unanimous denial of the apartment project last month.
The council voted 4-0, with Councilmember Kellie Hinze absent, to approve the 199-unit Clark Avenue Apartments project, rejecting the commission’s previous denial of the project based on its determination that the project was a subdivision required an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act.
The commission also felt the developers, Western National Properties, had not conducted adequate public outreach to Spanish-speaking residents living in the surrounding neighborhood.
But despite emotional appeals from the public pleading with the council to deny the controversial project, Mayor Catherine Blakespear said that “voting your heart” was not an option in this case.
“When the council came to having a court order to adopt a Housing Element, this was one of the sites, among 15, that was chosen,” said Mayor Catherine Blakespear. “And ultimately, as long as the developer follows city standards, the council doesn’t have the discretion to say ‘no’ to it.”
By the time voting came around Wednesday, most of the audience, which consisted of 16 public speakers and five who had written letters in opposition, had left the council chambers. One was heard saying, “it’s hopeless,” as the council began its deliberations.
“I just can’t believe it got this far,” said resident Sheri Armendariz, who emotionally recalled having nowhere to go following fires in 2008. “This is an appeal. If I were in your position, I would listen to my Planning Commission. They took all the facts and said that this particular place was wrong, too dense and is a dangerous place. You have the right today to change your minds.”
The Clark Avenue Apartments will consist of 15 buildings with 20% dedicated to low-income housing on six lots over 6.22 acres. The complex will replace two single-family homes and nursery sites with 150 market rate and 40 affordable housing units in the 600 block of Clark Avenue and 500 block of Union Street. Future residents will enter from Union Street, with exit points on Union and Clark.
Many residents’ concerns remain the same, including that the entrance and exit routes are inadequate to hold the weight of 199 additional units.
Chairman Kevin Doyle said he was disappointed the council didn’t seek more concessions from the developer and hoped there was an environmental impact report that would require more roadway enhancements, particularly when exiting from Union Street before “making a dangerous left turn onto Saxony Road” to reach the highway.
“I was hoping for the City Council to fight harder for concessions from the (developer),” Doyle told The Coast News. “I expected some pushback, but the feeling we’re getting from the state is developers don’t need to change anything — they don’t feel (developers) need to make concessions — and the city is gun-shy about losing its Housing Element certification.
“The (California Department of Housing and Community Development) really has too much power, in my opinion. I feel that there are ways the project could have been handled differently. I feel sorry for the people who live there because their lives will change. New residents won’t know how to get out of there. Hopefully, the city will step up and address dangerous intersections before people living there.”
Attorney Marco Gonzalez, representing Western National Properties, argued the council could not deny the housing development without evidence the project conflicts with objective design review standards.
Gonzalez said the public’s issue with the site originated in 2018 after the Encinitas City Council removed a controversial city-owned parcel known as “L-7” from its affordable housing plan just a week after voting to keep it on.
“The problem is that you guys shouldn’t have zoned this, right? That’s basically what you’ve heard?” Gonzalez said.
But Gonzalez argued the issue before the council was whether or not Clark Avenue Apartments broke measurable, clear standards within the city’s general and planning codes.
“No one is doing that because they can’t do that,” Gonzalez said.
Rebuttal to Subdivision Claims
Clark Development Action Group, represented by attorney Craig Sherman, claims the Planning Commission didn’t go far enough in its denial and required more “appropriate legally and factually supported findings” — calling out the developer for its lot line issues.
“These roads cannot support the project,” Sherman told the council.
Sherman focused on the perceived subdivision creation to trigger deeper traffic and public safety analysis. The applicant’s traffic study found that the projected increase of 1,200 vehicular trips per day would not adversely impact the streets.
Sherman claimed this was an incorrect reading and the city used the wrong classification — calling the road a residential collector rather than a rural road — to determine its travel capacity.
City staff said that was not an accurate representation of the traffic study.
However, residents argue the project will congest already gridlocked roadways and pose hazards to pedestrians because of its insufficient capacity.
In response to residents’ traffic safety concerns, Gonzalez told the council that Western National Properties is open to post-construction road and traffic improvements.
Sanjum Samagh, a Union Street resident and co-chairman at the Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas Orthopedic Surgery Division, said “objectively” he’s seen an increase in accidents involving pedestrians and bicycles.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of when someone will end up in a hospital when these units are allowed to be built with the minimal infrastructure that’s been proposed,” Samagh told the council. “I understand the need for affordable housing in Encinitas. But this location — with no pedestrian, bicycle or car thoroughfare with limited sidewalks — will result in further injuries or fatalities to members of our community.”
Cindy Cremona, an Encinitas mayoral candidate and leader of the Clark Development Action Group, echoed Samagh and other residents’ acceptance of the city’s requirement to provide affordable housing.
“Why don’t our housing policies require a higher percentage of units be set aside as affordable? We could meet state targets for affordable housing with thousands fewer units and impacts overall,” Cremona wrote in a letter to the council.
Cremona said the project falls short of providing affordable housing and infrastructure improvements for the community while giving developers plenty of financial incentives to pursue “cram-and-jam” projects.
Former planning chairman Bruce Ehlers, a District 4 candidate, criticized Blakespear’s remarks that the council’s hands were essentially tied.
“That’s (Blakespear’s) standard excuse — her hands are tied in every decision,” Ehlers told The Coast News. That’s distasteful. The truth is … (the council doesn’t) fight anything. If we’re going to implement state policy blindly, why do we need local government? If the local government’s hands are tied, why are we paying for them? It’s a poor excuse for a council.”
Craig Campion called for the council to yield to a compromise in the project that would better suit current residents, questioning the definitions of “subjective and objective.”
“Subjective or objective, we have to approve the project to hit our housing numbers,” Campion said.
Campion then displayed Blakespear’s campaign mailer supporting her attempt at a state office.
“‘Always standing up for us,'” Campion read from the mailer. “I thought the mayor is finally believing in our community and standing up for Encinitas.”
However, Campion also drew attention to real estate donors and PAC money Blakespear received during her candidacy.
“We’ll find out tonight if ‘standing up for us’ is people in Encinitas or the people with power,” Campion said.