Measure T failure leaves Encinitas in quandary

The defeat of Measure T, a city-sponsored housing plan on how to accommodate future population growth, has left Encinitas officials in a familiar spot — unsure how to strike a balance between what local voters want, what the state requires and what’s mandated in two recent legal settlements.

The full Encinitas City Council and most of the city’s Planning Commission backed the ballot measure, yet voters soundly rejected it in Nov. 8 election.

Measure T opponents say the defeat sends a clear message that the city needs to dump the plan and create something new. But city officials say that may not be possible given legal constraints and how much time it would take to draft a new plan. The current document took two years to produce.

The state, tired of waiting, could simply force the plan into action.

“I don’t expect that we will be given the luxury of (being allowed by the courts) go back to the drawing board and start again,” City Council member Catherine Blakespear said that day after being elected to be the city’s next Mayor.

At the Nov. 16 City Council meeting, Blakespear and fellow Council member Tony Kranz were picked to form a subcommittee that will work with interested residents via public and private meetings to explore options regarding a Housing Element Update and report back to the full City Council.

Encinitas is the only city in San Diego County without a state-certified Housing Element, a required document that spells out how a city proposes to rework its zoning to accommodate its future housing needs, particularly those of low-income people. The city is still working off its outdated original plan, which was created in the 1990s.

Over the years, the city has come up with various replacement options, but all of them have faced community opposition and been dropped. The Measure T plan calls for allowing additional housing on a series of sites along busy roadways in all five communities of Encinitas. In order to meet state targets for new housing growth, the plan proposes easing city height restrictions and allowing 20 to 30 dwelling units per acre on those sites.

During the campaign, critics charged the proposed zoning changes would allow the construction of extra-dense, extra tall buildings that would destroy the city’s small town character.

They’re now asking Encinitas officials to work with them to draw up a “far more palatable” plan for managing the city’s future housing growth, said Bruce Ehlers, a former city planning commissioner and the spokesman for the opponents’ group. They want stricter limits on height and building density and a guarantee that some of the new housing that results from the zoning changes will definitely go to low-income people.

“They didn’t listen to the opponents, they didn’t take us seriously ... I think this time they’re going to have to listen,” Ehlers said Nov. 9 as he discussed why he thinks the city-sponsored ballot measure failed.

The city’s lack of an updated Housing Element has already been legal fodder for developers angling to put higher-density housing projects in Encinitas. Last year, the city settled a lawsuit with the Building Industry Association of San Diego County. One of the terms of that settlement was the city had to get a new housing plan approved by the state. A second suit, brought by developer David Meyer and settled last summer, contained a similar condition.

The threat of additional lawsuits is waiting in the wings. During the election campaign, Coast Law Group attorney Marco Gonzalez announced his firm might sue the city if Measure T didn’t pass. After the measure failed, Gonzalez reiterated that vow.

“We’ll sue if we have to,” he said Nov. 9.

He declined to specify who his firm would be filing the lawsuit on behalf of, saying only that could be more than one party and those parties could include low-income housing advocates.

Even if the courts allowed Encinitas to essentially start over and create a new plan, there are other looming problems. Any new housing plan would need to go on a ballot just like Measure T did, based on a growth-control initiative voters passed in 2013, said Measure T supporter Kurt Groseclose, who like Ehlers is a former city planning commissioner.

Meanwhile, the City Council has other challenges on the horizon. Blakespear’s election to the Mayor’s post means that a Council seat will be vacant when she’s sworn into her new position next month.

After that Dec. 13th swearing-in ceremony, the Council will need to decide whether to appoint someone to her vacant council seat, which still has two years remaining in the four-year term, or pursue a costly special election.

Potential contenders were reportedly already eyeing the spot this week, but one city politician isn’t among them. Council member Lisa Shaffer, whose term ends next month, said she’s not interested in the job. She’s served her four years, she made a decision long ago not to run for re-election and she’s stepping down.

“If I wanted two more years, I would have run for Mayor,” she said Nov. 10.

— Barbara Henry writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Encinitas Advocate associate editor Chris Saur contributed to this report