Encinitas mayoral candidates split over housing plan, Streetscape project


Mayoral candidate John Paul Elliott opposes the city's proposed overhaul of Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia and advocates solving the city's low-income housing troubles by putting city-subsidized housing on the former Pacific View School site.

Catherine Blakespear, the city's incumbent mayor, backs the Streetscape plan and endorses Measure U, a city-sponsored housing plan on the Nov. 6 ballot that would up-zone various privately-owned parcels in town so they could contain higher-density housing.

Their contrasting viewpoints on housing and Streetscape were far from the only differences between the two candidates during a Tuesday night debate hosted by the Cardiff Town Council and moderated by the League of Women Voters' North County chapter.

The two candidates' political experience, their length of residency in Encinitas and even what they wore to the event were starkly different.

A real estate broker who said he has never before run for political office, Elliott sported a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flipflops. During the debate, his unofficial "running mate" -- his tiny dog Coco -- cavorted about on top of the table that the two candidates sat behind. Elliott, 71, is a recent returnee to Encinitas. He moved back into town a few months ago, and previously lived in Encinitas in the 1980s for about a decade before he and his wife divorced, he told a reporter after the debate ended.

Blakespear, 42, is seeking her second term as mayor, and previously served as a City Council member and a city Traffic & Public Safety Commissioner. An attorney who graduated from Torrey Pines High School, then moved away to attend college and later returned with her family in 2009, she wore business attire to Tuesday's event.

Many of the audience-submitted questions focused on low-income housing issues and traffic concerns, including issues related to the Streetscape project. That estimated $30 million project would overhaul a 2.5-mile stretch of Coast Highway from La Costa Avenue to A Street, giving the roadway six traffic circle roundabouts, as well as bike lanes and sidewalks. The plan, which has been appealed to the state Coastal Commission, has been controversial because it would eliminate one vehicle lane in each direction.

Stressing that it's been 70 years since the roadway has been reworked, Blakespear said the time has come to make some much-needed changes.

"My experience is that any reconfigeration of public space is controversial," she said, later adding that she expects much of the price tag will be funded by grants similar to what the city is experiencing with the El Portal undercrossing project.

Elliott said the city should leave the Leucadia area mostly as it is and spend the Streetscape money on housing for city workers, so firefighters and police officers don't have to drive an hour from where they live to where they work each day. He repeatedly said throughout the debate that the city ought to go its own way when it came to housing issues, saying the city's ongoing conflict with state officials over its lack of a certified housing plan shouldn't be handled in the way favored by the state or development interests.

"We need to step out of the box that they've given us and create a new environment," he said, later mentioning that the nation's communities used to provide housing for their school teachers.

Encinitas has been out of compliance with state housing law for years because it lacks a current, state-certified housing plan spelling out how it proposes to handle its future low-income housing needs. The November ballot measure, the city's latest attempt to resolve the situation, would up-zone 15 properties in town, allowing them to contain 25 to 30 housing units an acre.

Blakespear said it isn't the perfect plan, but it's a compromise plan and time is running out. If voters don't approve it, the judge overseeing several pending lawsuits against the city will likely force Encinitas officials to adopt a plan without voter approval, she said.

-- Barbara Henry is a freelance reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune