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Escondido approves land-use policy change, awaits state

ESCONDIDO — At its May 1 meeting, the Escondido City Council voted unanimously to approve a “density transfer” land use policy for real estate developers. The policy will offer zoning permit flexibility for those with development projects in the city.

The policy is a key part of what Mayor Paul McNamara campaigned on, slowing down “sprawl” style housing development in favor of developing “in-fill” style housing in the city’s downtown core.

The city has touted the amendment to its Downtown Specific Plan as a means of both getting cars off the road while also moving people closer to the downtown public transit center’s rail and bus lines.

Density transfer would “help incentivize future development and keep it in the downtown area to support nearby retailers, services, entertainment, and attract other businesses that are part of a desirable downtown economy,” said Bill Martin, principal planner with the city. “The overall amount of new development within the downtown would remain the same. However, if a new project leaves some density on the table and doesn’t build out their site fully, the program creates a flexible way to achieve the ultimate build-out of the downtown and create a future sustainable center of activity.”

Martin also called density transfer a form of development centered around “smart growth locations, rather than sprawl, which benefits everyone in the community.”

The Escondido Downtown Business Association and Escondido Chamber of Commerce have come out in favor of the regulatory mechanism, as well.

Yet not everyone came out in support of density transfer. Members of the city’s historical preservation community, and those who live in the historic downtown core, have expressed concern that the historical character of the area could change if things like high-rise condominiums and other modern edifices arise in the area.

“I’m greatly concerned that the Density housing program will have a ‘spillover’ effect in eroding what is not only a gem for those of us who live here, but for all of Escondido,” wrote Victoria Cabot in an April 5 email as part of the City Council documents published before the May 1 meeting. “It is one of the many charming aspects that puts our historic town on the map … I DO believe some type of housing would be beneficial to bring foot traffic to Grand (Avenue). I simply can’t understand why it has to be ‘all or nothing.'”

Cabot has lived in the Old Escondido neighborhood since 2001.

Beyond historical preservation concerns, the density transfer development plan could also may run into even larger complications, due to a legislative proposal with momentum in Sacramento, SB 50.

Also going by the moniker the California More HOMES Act of 2019, the legislation calls for city zoning codes to change as it applies to incentivizing building housing developments within a half-mile to quarter-mile radius of transit centers.

The goal of SB 50, according to its proponents, is to blend together tackling the climate change and affordable housing crises all in one swoop. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signaled support for spirit of the legislation.

Councilwoman Olga Diaz, a representative for District 3 also running as a Democratic candidate for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors District 3 seat currently held by Republican Kristin Gaspar, said at the meeting that she believes that it’s possible that the bill could — in effect — nullify the Density Transfer Program.

“All this great talking and doing and stuff, we might just throw it out the window if SB 50 passes and we can’t protect anything that we have had local control over,” Diaz said. “People have concerns here today about what we’re doing with density transfer, but what they should really be concerned about is losing local control over what we might eventually adopt.”

At the first candidate forum for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors District 3 seat, Diaz further explained that the Escondido City Council agrees with the League of California Cities — an organization which has come out against SB 50 — and may pass an official resolution against the proposal.

The league has published a letter written to California Legislature leadership calling for a killing of the bill.

“The League of California Cities objects to allowing developers of certain types of housing projects to override locally developed and adopted height limitations, housing densities, parking requirements, and limit design review standards,” reads a May 8 letter by the organization. “SB 50 would greatly undermine locally adopted General Plans, Housing Elements. By allowing developers to override state approved housing plans, SB 50 seriously calls to question the need for cities to develop these community based plans and the justification for spending millions of state and local funds on the planning process.”

McNamara, though, said the City Council will cross that bridge when it gets there for SB 50.

“I’m not sure it’s an efficient use of time to deal in hypotheticals,” said McNamara. “I mean, when SB 50 passes with a final version, then clearly we’ll deal with it and see what the impact is.”


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