ENCINITAS — Several hundred Encinitas residents and multiple homeowners associations oppose a proposed 17-unit residential development in a rural Leucadia neighborhood, claiming the project’s “excessive” densification goes far beyond the land’s current zoning designation and will negatively impact the surrounding communities and coastal resources.
The 10-acre vacant lot along Bella Vista Drive, a parcel roughly the size of 10 football fields located north of Blue Heron Avenue and south of La Costa Avenue, is surrounded by single-family homes and open spaces near Batiquitos Lagoon.
The site, and most of the surrounding neighborhoods, is zoned Rural Residential 1 (RR1), allowing a maximum of one unit per developable acre.
“Unfortunately, the landowners have chosen to artificially inflate the sales price of the property by marketing the ‘density bonus’ to triple the number of units intended under current zoning, which the land is not capable of supporting without significant negative impact to his fragile coastal resource,” according to a statement signed by representatives of five neighboring homeowners associations.
The property, nicknamed Biophilia Ranch by landowners Don and Michoyo Kira for its rare local wildlife and native flora, has steep hills on the parcel’s east side, with 2.38 acres of slopes exceeding 40% grade.
Adjusting for slopes at the Bella Vista Drive site, there are approximately 6 acres of flat usable land to build 17 single-family homes or roughly three homes per acre.
Under normal circumstances, residents argue this zoning designation permits approximately six low-impact residences based on slope-adjusted net acreage — one-third of the units proposed under the landowner’s density bonus calculations.
But California’s Density Bonus Law, enacted in 1979, allows a developer to bypass local zoning limitations and build more housing based on gross acreage (entire parcel, slopes included) if the project provides a minimum number of affordable units.
Additionally, as the result of a 2016 lawsuit against the city of Encinitas by developer David Meyer of DCM Properties, the city agreed to round up fractional units when calculating the number of homes for any density bonus project, creating at least one additional market-rate home for any development.
Bella Vista has a gross acreage of 10.1 acres, which equals 10.1 housing units for a developer under a density bonus before rounding up to 11 units.
Since two residences are designated for low-income buyers, the 50% density bonus gives the project 16.5 units, rounding up to 17 single-family homes.
In short, the Bella Vista Drive project will look significantly different from the surrounding neighborhoods, with some homeowners questioning the purpose of municipal zoning.
“I wouldn’t have bought my house if it was zoned for high density,” said one homeowner who lives on nearby Bella Azul Court overlooking the proposed development site. “Apparently, with bonus density, zoning means nothing anymore. I’m in favor of development — that’s normal, that’s progress. But it shouldn’t be one size fits all. It’s heavily impactful to our area.”
The homeowner, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said while they support development in general, the area is not an ideal site for increased density projects in such stark contrast to the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Bella Vista applicants are not seeking any concessions or incentives. Still, several waivers were filed with the city’s planning department, including front and side yard setbacks, building height, lot coverage and parking requirements.
Mayor Tony Kranz, a former District 1 councilman, told The Coast News the state’s density bonus law had created some difficult issues between developers and residents.
“I’m not a fan of density bonus from the standpoint of its impact on neighborhoods,” Kranz said. “It’s intended to provide for affordable housing. The goal is laudable, but in my opinion, density bonus should be dedicated to larger projects in areas that are establishing their own neighborhoods. But that’s not the way the state law is written.”
A municipal government may only deny a project utilizing a density bonus if it poses health, safety, environment, or historic property risks.
But in most cases, those concerns are difficult to prove, Kranz said, harkening back to the controversial Goodson project, a recently approved 250-unit apartment complex along Encinitas Boulevard in Olivenhain.
The Bella Vista Drive plot is in a very high fire safety hazard severity zone, according to CalFire.
One of the project applicants is Erin McKinley, a land advisor at Colliers International and manager of Future West Land Company.
McKinley is a member of David Santistevan’s team at Colliers in La Jolla.
Santistevan, an executive VP at Colliers, was one of several defendants in a federal housing discrimination lawsuit after purchasing a designated affordable home in Olivenhain over 80 qualified low-income applicants. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, and some of the parties have reportedly settled out of court.
McKinley declined to comment for this article.
According to the California Secretary of State, Future West was formed in January 2021 by Orange County attorney Nancy Dubonnet. Future West’s initial business and mailing addresses shared the same address as Santistevan’s La Jolla office.
In August 2022, Santistevan was added as a manager of Future West, with Dubonnet listed as the registered corporate agent.
On March 23, Santistevan, who owns several legitimate shell companies for purchasing real estate, was removed as a manager and replaced with McKinley. The business and mailing addresses for Future West were also changed to McKinley’s residence in Solana Beach.
The other applicant is listed as “Greg Brown,” but no further information is provided on the city’s disclosure statement. The Coast News could not confirm the individual’s identity or relationship to McKinley.
“It’s a transaction to them, but it’s our community. So it’s heavily impactful on our community,” the homeowner said.
During a Citizen Participation Plan meeting hosted on March 11 at the proposed site by Brian Ardolino, engineer for Solana Beach-based Pasco Laret Suiter and Associates, neighboring homeowners asked questions and shared concerns about the project. Most of the issues concerned drainage, traffic, parking and fire safety.
Ardolino told residents that a 17-lot project isn’t big enough to “move the needle” when considering traffic calculations.
“Usually, you need 500 units or more before you actually create an impact that needs to be mitigated,” Ardolino said.
Ardolino said that the development would also provide 1-for-1 parking for each unit, plus room in driveways and garages, giving the project plenty of onsite parking without forcing vehicles to park on neighboring streets.
One homeowner lives on nearby Blue Heron Avenue and expressed concerns that the development would create more drainage issues on the roads and surrounding properties during storms.
The resident said after heavy rains, excess stormwater floods the road and gutters, spilling out over the sidewalk.
Ardolino said the project wouldn’t drain more water onto the street than the existing condition.
“As part of any development, we have to analyze a 100-year storm event,” Ardolino said. “The rate of (water) flow leaving this site can’t exceed the rate leaving the site right now.”
Ardolino acknowledged there are some erosion concerns when it comes to drainage at the site.
“The slope off the back is highly erosive,” Ardolino said. “It’s always been a concern, and it’s still kind of an ongoing thing. Instead of any water being allowed to drain over the slope, we’re going to be using infiltration pits to make sure that the water doesn’t just run over the side as it does at Bella Azul Court because that’s an ongoing problem over there.”
Regarding fire safety, Ardolino said the risks could be mitigated by establishing 100-foot buffer zones, a fire protection wall and removing or thinning vegetation. But fire evacuation concerns arose as the development only has one point of ingress and egress through “fully populated neighborhoods” in case of a wildfire.
When asked the developer’s name, Ardolino said it was “Mr. Brown,” an “old school developer” from East County San Diego, but no further information was provided.
Ardolino did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for clarification regarding his statements during the CPP meeting.
“Our community at Bello Mar opposes any consideration of Density Bonus approval, waivers, concessions, etc., for this parcel beyond the currently allowed RR1 zoning, and likewise oppose any other measures that would allow the developer to build more than one housing unit per developable acre on the property,” according to a letter submitted to the city’s planning department by Peter Martenson, president of Bello Mar HOA. “We appreciate your consideration of this request and ask that you act to keep the current zoning application and currently allowed the use of the property along Bella Vista without Density Bonus application to preserve the safety and security of our neighborhood and residents.”
The group has a website to sign a petition against the project at ProtectEncinitas.com.