OCEANSIDE — Housing development in Oceanside is a hot-button issue this year due to Measure L, which will determine whether or not the controversial North River Farms project will come to fruition.
Those for the project argue that the 585-home development will help the city’s economy, and without the project, the state may soon crack down on the city to mandate more housing. Those against the project argue that there is plenty of in-fill development opportunities that will help the city meet the state’s housing requirements and that the project overall is detrimental to the city.
Regardless of the outcome, cities around the state, including those in San Diego County, are mandated to show how they can accommodate a certain amount of new homes regardless of residents’ income through a process called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation or RHNA.
The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines the number of new homes each local jurisdiction needs to build and how affordable those homes should be to adequately meet the housing needs of everyone.
HCD determined that San Diego County needs 171,685 housing units built between April 15, 2021, and April 15, 2029. This eight-year period of time is considered the sixth housing element cycle.
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) approved its RHNA Plan on July 10. According to the plan, Oceanside needs a total of 5,443 housing units built during the 6th cycle.
Specifically, the city needs 1,268 units to accommodate households with very low incomes, 718 units for low-income households, 883 for moderate-income households, and 2,574 units for above moderate-income households.
According to Oceanside Principal Planner Russ Cunningham, the methodology behind the allocation process looks at the relative population of cities and what growth potential exists based on each city. It also takes into consideration equity.
“It comes down to ensuring all cities are accepting their fair share of lower-income housing,” Cunningham said.
The state’s housing-element law mandates that housing must be included as part of each jurisdiction’s general plan. Local governments must adopt these plans and regulatory systems that provide opportunities for housing development without excessive processes that hold up such development.
“We need to demonstrate like every other jurisdiction that we have the land resources under the appropriate zoning to accommodate that number of houses,” Cunningham said.
Part of this process for the city includes parcel-level housing inventory assessments in spaces that are either vacant or considered underutilized.
“We see the recycling of properties developed with single-family homes after residents reach 50 or 60 years of age,” Cunningham said. “Those properties present opportunity for additional housing.”
Commercial districts also allow for residential properties typically within mixed-use buildings, such as a downstairs storefront property with apartments above.
The city has also reduced some regulatory barriers, including a streamlined environmental review process.
Earlier this year, the city began its process of completing its General Plan Update, which included creating a Smart and Sustainable Corridors Plan and developing a community plan for South Morro Hills, where the North River Farms project would be built.
The city has started gathering input from residents regarding its General Plan Update through online surveys. The first online survey asks residents about the city’s 17 neighborhood planning areas, which includes areas like South Morro Hills.
Ultimately, the state is concerned about the undersupply of housing and housing costs, which is contributing to “any number of problems from homelessness to overcrowding,” Cunningham said.
Many communities have resisted further housing development by making the regulation processes more difficult.
Over the last few years, the state has passed a number of laws to essentially allow the state to intervene and control how the land can be used and developed in local jurisdictions.
“That authority is granted to cities but the state can preempt that authority when it finds there are matters of statewide concern, so in recent years the state has preempted local zoning in cities,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham believes that if cities don’t start looking at ways to accommodate growth in a “reasonable and sustainable way,” the state will continue to preempt and pass more legislation that takes control away from cities regarding housing.
“We’re trying to be responsive and very mindful of where the state seems to be heading, and we’re trying to do what we can so as not to thwart the state’s goal of providing more housing,” Cunningham said.
The city has considered the rezoning of certain commercial districts as well as the rezoning of agricultural land for more housing.
City Council narrowly approved rezoning 176.6 acres of agricultural land in South Morro Hills to make way for the 585-home development. Measure L is a citizen-led referendum that places the fate of the project in the hands of city voters.
Integral Communities, the North River Farms developer, recently sued proponents of the referendum under Senate Bill 330, a new state law that intends to address the state’s housing shortage and affordability crisis by boosting supply and expediting housing production.
A January 2019 staff report from Development Services and the Planning Division noted that the city had adequate capacity outside of the North River Farms project area to accommodate its regional fair share of housing growth during the current housing element cycle.
It also states that the staff believes the city will be able to demonstrate adequate capacity without the project during the sixth element cycle.
Those opposed to North River Farms argue that the development does not meet “smart growth” standards.
Cunningham explained that most of the city’s smart growth opportunity areas are along corridors served by mass transit, like near Sprinter stops and Coast Highway.
“If you look at smart growth in those terms, then it would be hard to define development in South Morro Hills as smart growth because as of right now it is not served by transit,” Cunningham said.
At the same time, the preservation of agricultural land plus the need to provide more opportunities for agritourism and bringing more business to farmers in South Morro Hills sometimes challenges smart growth goals. Cunningham explained that city staff needs to find the best balance of all its goals for the city.
State officials have indicated to Cunningham that they recognize building more housing is one state priority among many, including the preservation of agricultural land and habitat, and growing smartly and sustainably so that development doesn’t add to congestion.
“It’s good to hear from state officials that they recognize that housing is one of many priorities of the state and that it requires balance,” Cunningham said. “They generally see Oceanside as working in good faith in finding that balance between finding housing, preserving habitat, reducing vehicle miles traveled and reducing air pollution.”
According to resident Dennis Martinek, allowing the project is “really poor planning,” especially before the city finalizes its neighborhood vision for South Morro Hills. Martinek previously served on the Planning Commission for over 16 years and is a retired professor of business, economics and urban planning.
“Planning staff was strongly opposed to it and recommended it for denial, and the Planning Commission denied it,” Martinek said. “City Council was somehow swayed, but people in the area don’t want it.”
Martinek believes there is enough space for “in-fill development” throughout the city that will help Oceanside meet its RHNA requirements rather than contributing to urban sprawl.
Given the uncertainty of the project at this point, Cunningham said city staff will try to demonstrate its ability to meet its RHNA obligations without relying on the potential housing that North River Farms would provide.
Oceanside and the other cities in San Diego County have until April 15, 2021, to demonstrate that they can meet their new housing allocations.