Encinitas Council approves changes to density bonuses for housing projects

(Charlie Neuman)

Developer says new regulations contain serious flaws, calls vote ‘shameful’ given economic woes


The Encinitas City Council gave final approval Wednesday, Dec. 16, to new rules for higher-density housing projects that receive special city building code exemptions under a state law.

The state’s Density Bonus Law, which was initially enacted in the 1970s and has undergone repeated revisions in recent years, aims to encourage the construction of low-income housing by allowing developers to put more homes than would normally be allowed on a given lot, if they agree to designate some of their proposed housing for low-income families.

Proponents say the law helps create much-needed, lower-cost housing in a state with astronomically high housing prices. Opponents contend that not much low-income housing actually has been built recently, saying cities are mostly ending up with tons of high-density, market-rate housing. The law’s been particularly controversial in Encinitas lately and critics have been pushing the city to set stricter standards.

A proposed set of regulations was working its way through the city Planning Commission’s review process earlier this year when the state Legislature approved the latest update to the law. The revisions take effect in January, and the City Council has sought to have its new regulations in place before then.

On Wednesday, Dec. 16, developer David Meyer of DCM Properties Inc. said he was “truly saddened and distressed” by the council’s decision, calling it “shameful” and a “black mark on on our wonderful city” given the nation’s troubled economy.

Encinitas has approved 32 density-bonus projects in the last three years, and Meyers said developers are pursuing the state law’s exemption provisions so frequently because Encinitas puts so many obstacles on regular housing development projects. The new density-bonus rules will make it hard to build any housing in Encinitas, he said.

The council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Jody Hubbard absent, to give final approval to the proposed changes without comment. Last week, when the item was initially heard, a city planning commissioner who said he was speaking as a private citizen strongly encouraged the council to approve the proposal.

The Planning Commission spent “many, many hours” reviewing the proposed changes, Kevin Doyle told the council, adding that he thought the new standards were “a sensible solution.”

Among other things, the new rules require that:

  • All low-income units in a Density Bonus project be at least 75 percent of the size of the market-rate units, provided that each low-income unit doesn’t end up being larger than 2,000 square feet.
  • City housing density calculations be based on net acreage — the area that can be developed — rather than the total lot size, which can include wetlands and other areas. Using the total lot size could allow a larger number of homes to be built on a given lot.
  • The changes also include incentives for lower-cost housing by allowing developers to build housing projects that are 41 percent more dense if 24 percent of the units are set aside for low-income families. The current state law allows up to a 35 percent density bonus for projects with mixed market-rate and low-income housing. The update that goes into effect in January would allow a 50 percent density bonus if 24 percent of the housing is designated as low-income units.

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