Encinitas finally adopts state-mandated housing plan

Encinitas welcoming sign
(Charlie Neuman)

Decision included agreement to repeal new city ordinances regarding housing density and group homes


Encinitas adopted a state-mandated housing planning document earlier this month, accomplishing the job for the first time before the deadline, and agreeing in the process to dump two new city ordinances.

The council’s agreement to repeal both an ordinance regulating group homes and one on housing density was a compromise that was well-worth making because it may finally bring to a close the city’s endless cycle of housing-related lawsuits and conflicts with state housing officials, the city’s mayor said this week.

“We’re doing what needs to be done and we’re doing it responsibly,” said Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who voted with the council’s 4-1 majority to back the proposal.

The city will now be eligible for state grant money and will eventually gain extra time in future housing plan cycles to update its plan, she said.

Councilman Tony Kranz, the lone vote opposed to the deal, said he believes the city should have fought to keep the two ordinances in place, saying the city had legal advice indicating that the two could be defendable in court.

“We just got some push back from (the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development) and we just kind of rolled over,” he said, later adding, “I prefer to push back before we roll over.”

Encinitas has been in conflict with the state for years over its lack of compliance with a state law that requires cities to have valid Housing Elements — planning documents that detail the zoning changes that cities will make to accommodate future housing growth, particularly the ever-increasing need for affordable housing for low-income people.

The state requires these housing plans to be regularly updated, but Encinitas has struggled for years to get the job done because of conflicts over what spots ought to accommodate additional housing. The Encinitas Housing Element plan that covers the 2013-2021 period wasn’t adopted by the council until 2019 and that vote came after multiple building industry lawsuits, threats of legal action by the state and two failed ballot measures.

A new city staff report estimates Encinitas spent nearly $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees, court costs and payments to plaintiffs’ attorneys related to its lack of compliance with state housing law during that period.

The deadline for the latest housing plan cycle — the 2021-2029 cycle — was April 15. Fresh from completing the previous housing plan and facing a new set of state housing units that weren’t as tough to accommodate, city officials were hoping for a lower-stress approval process this time around and expecting to meet the spring deadline.

On March 25, however, the city approval process ran into a roadblock when state housing officials issued two “notices of violation” declaring that the city’s new group home and density bonus ordinances — ordinances the council had recently adopted to deal with community complaints — failed to comply with state housing law and needed to be repelled.

The density bonus ordinance, which set out new standards for developers seeking to take advantage of a state law that allows them to put more units on a lot if they set aside some units for low-income people, created ‘burdensome” paperwork requirements for developers, state housing policy development division Deputy Director Megan Kirkeby wrote in the 10-page notice of violation letter. Kirkeby also noted that the new ordinance could reduce the number of extra units developers might be allowed to build because the city was using as a starting point a lot’s net acreage — the area that can be built upon — rather than the entire, or gross acreage, figure the city had used in the past.

“The city cites no legal basis for changing its ordinance in this manner, and indeed the city’s own attorney advises against the change,” Kirkeby wrote.

When it came to the group home ordinance, which was enacted to reduce conflicts between neighboring homeowners and residential programs for people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, the state violation letter declared that not only were the new permit requirements for the group homes burdensome, they appeared to be discriminatory. Instead of targeting group homes with special legislation, Encinitas ought to be trying to resolve its noise, trash and public safety issues with a few group homes through laws that apply to all homes, the letter stated.

“Although this ordinance ostensibly seeks to address the ‘adverse impacts’ of Group Homes, these kinds of ordinances — calling out protected classes for specific regulatory action based on concerns of this nature — can result in significant barriers to housing for persons with disabilities in a way that a more generalized regulatory response, targeting actions or impacts rather than persons, would not,” Kirkeby wrote.

A staff report produced for the April 7 meeting when the council voted to pursue repealing the two ordinances and adopt the new Housing Element contains many e-mails from residents supporting the city’s new density bonus ordinance and urging the city to “stand up to Sacramento,” as well as some emails from low-income housing advocates encouraging the city to pursue the compromise option and start “actual building of more affordable housing.”

Bruce Ehlers, chairman of the city’s Planning Commission, expects more debate on the issue next month. The commission’s scheduled to make its recommendation on the plans to repeal the ordinances at its 6 p.m. May 6 meeting.

Ehlers, who has been active in growth control issues in Encinitas for years, said he wants more information about why the council agreed to pursue repealing the ordinances, saying his initial reaction is that the council moved “too fast” in response to the state notices of violation.

“(Kranz) was basically saying not so fast and I agree with that,” he said, adding that he wants more information about legal issues before he’ll reach a final decision.

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