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Parking lot proposal returns to commission

ENCINITAS —A proposal to expand an Encinitas shopping center’s parking lot was placed on hold Wednesday to see if the city could devise a compromise that would satisfy the concerns of neighbors opposed to the expansion.

The Encinitas City Council voted unanimously to table an appeal of the plans for the shopping center on North El Camino Real, which the planning commission approved in March.

A homeowner in the New Villanitas community filed the appeal. His chief complaint was that the shopping center’s owners chopped down 65 trees — many of them eucalyptus — that served as a buffer between homes and the center.

Council voted unanimously to return the item to the planning commission after city staff suggested a compromise that would require the applicant, North El Camino LLC, to develop a landscape plan that would restore the verdant buffer. Council members appeared open to the suggested change, but said it needed to be vetted by a landscape architect and arborist before it could be approved.

“I don’t want a paper condition that feels good but doesn’t work,” Shaffer said.

The proposal would add 18 parking spaces to the current 176-space lot. North El Camino LLC representatives said the shopping center has a dearth of parking that results in frustrated customers leaving the center and its tenants.

Company representatives said their concerns were backed by a parking study commissioned by the company, which showed the parking lot was at or near capacity for much of the time period of the study.

The center, which was approved by the county prior to the city’s incorporation, falls short of the 200 spaces the city would require of new developments with the same tenant mix, but the city’s planning staff said the proposal would move the center closer to conformity with current city standards.

Pierre Joubert, the neighbor who filed the appeal, argued the shopping center’s owners were exaggerating the need for additional parking. Several neighbors spoke and presented photos taken during various times of the day showing numerous available parking spaces.

The crux of Joubert’s appeal, however, centered on a July 4, 2009 incident when the commercial center owners — without city permission — chopped down the trees that screened off the shopping center for their view.

Joubert and his neighbors said the current plans are an extension of the company’s disregard for the neighboring homeowners.

“If approved, this will create three months of noise pollution, dirt and god knows what else, and nobody can accurately tell us how that will leave us when it is over,” Joubert said. “Surely, the onus is on applicant to prove that he won’t impact our property values.

“If the application is approved, it will set a bad precedent that neighbors will feel at mercy of big companies and their expansion plans,” Joubert said.

Several council members expressed sympathy for the neighbors, but said the city code did not give them the latitude to block approval based on the lack of trees. City staff, however, advised the council the design review process did allow them latitude to require the shopping center owners to restore the landscape.