ENCINITAS — Following nearly three hours of public testimony on Feb. 1 in packed council chambers, the Planning Commission postponed its final decision on a proposed 485-unit apartment complex to mid-February.
Nearly 60 people signed up to speak on Thursday night in opposition to Quail Meadows Apartments, the largest residential development in the city’s history, some donating their time for others to speak longer or leaving before the four-hour meeting ended at 10 p.m.
The developer, Baldwin & Sons, and city staff spent a good portion of the meeting explaining the controversial project and answering questions from commissioners reflecting the community’s concerns. Commissioners will have a chance to ask more questions and begin deliberations on Feb. 15, but they will not accept any additional public comments unless the developer makes substantial changes before the next meeting.
The project located at 185, 195, 211 and 225 Quail Gardens Drive has been highly controversial among residents who fear the impacts two six-story buildings will have on the surrounding environment and neighborhood.
Quail Meadows will consist of 485 apartments with one, two and three bedrooms within a pair of large buildings facing Kristen Court. The project will also include a seven-story parking garage – six stories above ground, one story below – with 793 parking spaces, 319 of which are set aside for electric vehicles.
“The hospital is not even this big,” said Encinitas resident Teresa Conahan, who opposed the project.
Additionally, the project includes a two-story fitness center, two pools and spas with lounge seating, shaded cabanas and daybeds; courtyard amenities including barbecue counters, fire pits, seating areas, a gaming yard, an outdoor television wall and dining space; and inside space for large gatherings, a private conference room, yoga and painting classes, workshop space, a sports lounge and a game room.
“There is a very high level of amenities that will make the project a desirable place to live,” said Maria Miller, director of planning and entitlement for Baldwin & Sons.
As part of the project, the developer is required to relocate two Torrey pines currently on the property and to preserve a California Coastal Commission-designated wetland in the northern portion of the property.
Under regular city zoning laws, buildings ranging between 60 and 90 feet in height and holding nearly 500 units wouldn’t be allowed on the site. However, since the project has invoked the state’s density bonus law by including 72 affordable units, or 20% of the site’s 359-unit base density, the project ballooned to 485 units under the allowable density. The affordable units will be sprinkled throughout the project, and tenants will have access to the same amenities as the market-rate units.
The by-right project is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review and is only subject to objective design standards.
Several residents questioned whether the base density of the property should have been calculated using net acreage — as outlined in the city’s General Plan and zoning ordinance — rather than gross acreage, resulting in fewer overall units.
“We’re not saying they don’t get the density bonus; we just think it should be done consistent with the city’s standards,” said resident Chris Calkins. “I would urge you to send this project back and let the developer come back with a proposal that’s consistent with city standards and with a density that’s appropriate to the site.”
However, the state’s Density Bonus Law demands that gross acreage be used when determining base density. The city previously attempted to change its density bonus policy to use net acreage in 2020 but had to stop following warnings from the California Department of Housing and Community Development that the change “disincentivized affordable housing” and violated state law.
Commissioner Kevin Doyle said he didn’t agree with using gross acreage in density bonus calculations but acknowledged that the developer’s calculations were legal.
“If we’re going to deny a project, we’re going to deny it for its sound legal findings,” Doyle said. “If we’re going to approve it, we’re going to approve it for similar reasons.”
Residents are also worried about traffic from Quail Meadows, which is expected to generate approximately 2,910 average daily trips from its two access points on Quail Gardens Drive, a two-lane road going one way in both directions.
Several residents said that Quail Gardens Drive would be permanently gridlocked with traffic from the proposed project and three other approved projects – Fox Point Farms with 250 units, Sunshine Gardens with 140 units, and Moonlight Apartments with 202 units – along a 1.5-mile stretch of road.
“This should be on a four-lane road with two lanes going each way,” said resident Ted Elliott.
A traffic study determined the road could handle the increase in daily trips, but residents remained unconvinced that the analysis thoroughly considered the potential impacts on the area.
“This traffic study was done in the middle of COVID-19 when no one was driving, and it’s probably not considering these other projects, whether they say they are or not,” Elliott said.
As part of the project, the developer would be required to make several road improvements, including traffic signal modifications featuring adaptive signal timing and right-turn overlaps at westbound and southbound approaches to the Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas Boulevard and Westlake Street intersection.
Baldwin & Sons has also volunteered to construct a roundabout at the main project entryway at the Kristen Court intersection to ease traffic flow along Quail Gardens Drive, a change from previous discussions when developer representatives claimed that a roundabout was not feasible there.
A roundabout would require final approval from the City Council.
Other concerns included increased runoff and pollution of local waterways from the project. According to developers and city staff, the stormwater management plan will include a system that traps and treats the increased amount of runoff to prevent higher rates of flow and pollution directed to the Moonlight Beach outfall.
The building’s height was another contentious factor for residents, who feared the twin buildings would tower over the neighborhood. Miller said the property’s grading is much lower than the surrounding residential area, reducing its imprint on the local skyline.
Originally proposed as 34 single-family homes in the mid-2000s, the project’s developer has changed the size of the project several times over the last two decades. Regardless of the project’s size, Baldwin & Sons COO Nick Lee said the company has been met with opposition from residents.
“We have been working on this project for a very long time,” Lee said.
Lee argued the project would help to address the city’s housing shortage, enable more Encinitas workers who commute from outside to live there, and help younger residents attain housing where they grew up.
Doyle said regardless of what the Planning Commission decides next week, their decision will likely be appealed, leaving the final decision up to the City Council.