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A housing development in Encinitas, as seen from a balloon. File photo
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Housing forum debates pros and cons of Measure U

ENCINITAS — As the November election draws closer, the battle over Encinitas’ housing plan continues.

The latest question facing residents is: Should they vote to approve Measure U? The ballot proposal would allow increased housing density up to three stories high at 15 potential sites in the city as a way of complying with state housing law, particularly as it pertains to affordability.

To debate the pros and cons of Measure U, two public forums moderated by the League of Women Voters were held at the Encinitas Library on Sept. 13 and Sept. 16. The Leucadia Town Council and Engage Encinitas hosted the events.

Kurt Groseclose, a Housing Element Update Task Force member and former Planning Commissioner, represented the pro side, while retired attorney Peter Stern — an active and vocal presence at City Council meetings — represented the opposition.

At the 1.5-hour structured debate on Sept. 16 that was passionate yet polite, Stern got to make the first statement. Out of the gate he said, “Measure U is a terrible deal for the residents of Encinitas and a wonderful giveaway to developers.”

Some of Stern’s criticisms focused on how the plan would allow building heights above 30 feet and how developers would only have to make 15 percent of the units affordable.

To allow for architectural variety, the plan has different height limits, such as 37 feet for a pitched roof design. An additional five feet could be added for elevator shafts and other necessary equipment, although that equipment could not occupy more than 25 percent of the roof area. All the housing sites in Measure U would allow for 25 to 30 units per net acre, and the buildings would be capped at three stories.

Regarding the 15 percent inclusionary rate, Mayor Catherine Blakespear explained in an email to The Coast News, “The state doesn’t accept higher than 15 percent without a study that demonstrates that the development project remains financially feasible for the landowner. By October, the city should have the results of the study that hopefully will allow us to go higher than 15 percent.

“Other cities that have required much higher inclusionary percentages for certain projects have made concessions that we’re unable to accept in Encinitas, for example waiving all parking requirements for a development project or allowing building heights above 10 stories. Those are non­starters here.”

Groseclose focused on the fact that Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County and one of few in California that does not have a certified Housing Element in place. A Housing Element is a plan required by the state that addresses how a city will provide adequate housing for all income levels. The requirements are seen as a collective effort to ease the overall housing affordability crisis facing California.

Groseclose argued that passing Measure U would allow Encinitas to maintain local control of its housing and zoning, while a no vote could mean losing rights via court or state decisions.

He conveyed the sense that the city is running out of time as this ballot measure represents what Groseclose called “the second bite at the apple.” Another housing initiative, Measure T, failed at the 2016 ballot.

Encinitas not only faces two court cases related to its lack of a Housing Element, but it’s also at risk of coming head to head with what Groseclose perceives as increasingly more punitive state laws. “Cities that aren’t compliant can now get referred to the attorney general,” he said.

But Stern dismissed those types of warnings as fearmongering. Stern said, “The city used the same scare tactics with Measure T, but here we are — and we haven’t lost control.”

A written question from the audience asked why Leucadia was receiving a disproportionate percentage of the housing sites. Groseclose explained that a law issued in January requires more than 50 percent of Housing Element sites to be built on vacant land and that Leucadia happens to have more suitable vacant properties than other neighborhoods. “It was our intent to spread out the distribution,” Groseclose said, until state law derailed the plan.

Stern retorted, “Leucadia is getting shafted this time around, and eventually in future housing cycles, it will be the other communities.”

Stern claimed that Measure U allows for the dismantling of Proposition A, a law passed in 2013 that gives residents the right to vote on substantial zoning increases and on projects with building heights greater than two stories. Groseclose said that was absolutely not true.

Stern’s assertion stemmed from a vaguely worded part of the measure, stating that the city would “take actions to ensure that future Housing Elements can be adopted in a timely fashion and that requirements for a vote of the people do not constrain the City’s compliance with State law.”

Blakespear clarified via email, “Prop. A could never be overturned by a housing element update. … The quoted sentence is stating that we will not let Prop. A’s requirement of a vote stop the city from complying with state housing laws. This means, for example, that even though the next housing plan isn’t due to the state until the spring of 2021, the city will need to take that plan to a vote of the people in 2020, in order to ensure that we meet the state’s deadline.”

Stern argued that city residents “deserve an intelligent and thoughtful plan” that Measure U does not provide, while Groseclose called Measure U a “compromise” brought about by more than 25 public meetings and “constant interaction” with the state’s housing authority. Groseclose said, “It’s the best we’ve got.”