Developer of Vulcan Avenue apartment project wins appeal

The 72-unit Vulcan Avenue apartment complex is proposed for a site just south of Vulcan Avenue’s intersection with La Costa Avenue.

The Encinitas Planning Commission wasn’t justified in denying permits to a controversial Vulcan Avenue apartment project, the City Council unanimously decided last week as it upheld the developer’s appeal of the commission’s decision.

This is essentially a “by-right” project because it’s going on one of 15 locations that have been previously identified in a state-mandated, citywide housing plan as future higher-density housing sites, and thus the Planning Commission should have had much less flexibility in its decision-making process, Mayor Catherine Blakespear said.

“In my mind, there’s just no question that this has any justification for denial,” she said.

Councilman Tony Kranz, who represents the Leucadia area where the project will go, agreed.

“Ultimately, I think the law has been followed,” he said.

The 72-unit apartment complex is proposed for a site just south of Vulcan Avenue’s intersection with La Costa Avenue. The La Costa roadway is already heavily congested, and some neighboring homeowners have previously argued that apartment complex development shouldn’t be permitted because it could make the existing traffic troubles far worse.

However, opposition to the project appeared subdued at the Wednesday, Aug. 25, council meeting. Only about a quarter of the roughly dozen public speakers said they opposed the project. The majority of the speakers said they liked the latest redesign and thought Encinitas desperately needed the rental housing that the project would provide. Out of the 72 apartment units, 12 will be set aside for low-income families.

At their June 17 meeting, city planning commissioners told the opponents they couldn’t force the developer to fix a pre-existing traffic problem on La Costa Avenue, especially as traffic studies indicated that the apartment complex wouldn’t add significantly to the traffic volume in the area. The commission’s 3-1 vote to deny the project the design review, density bonus and coastal development permits it needed to proceed was based on concerns about the project’s proposed appearance, rather than traffic issues, and commissioners used the city’s design review standards as a basis for making their decision.

All of the commissioners, even Commissioner Steve Dalton who voted in favor of issuing the permits, said they disliked the proposed design. Commissioner Kevin Doyle called it “horrible,” Commissioner Bruce Ehlers said the backside was “monolithic,” and Commissioner Susan Sherod said the plans were so generic looking that the project could have been placed anywhere, even Nebraska.

Developer representative Austin Wermers told the City Council Wednesday, Aug. 25, that he had taken these comments, plus concerns raised by residents, to heart and had revised the design, even though he wasn’t technically required to do so under state housing law.

“I listened to the community and I was called to action to make changes on my building,” he said.

A single-story community center proposed for the front of the main apartment building complex now will feature a butterfly-style roof design. He’s added artist elements to the apartment complex design, including a mural, and he has redone the proposed landscaping plan to increase the number of canopy trees and reduce the palm tree look, he said.

Council members said they thought the revised design was much better than the version the commissioners saw in June. Councilwoman Kellie Shay Hinze said she thought the old plans had “some design flaws.”

“I’m happy with the way this has ended up,” she added.

Councilwoman Joy Lyndes said she was impressed that Wermers had made the changes even though he wasn’t required to do so.

“I think that’s an example of the kind of applicant that’s a good fit for the community,” she said.

The Vulcan Avenue apartment complex.

The city’s review of the Vulcan Avenue project has been closely eyed by state housing officials. When the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development notified the city in July that its newest housing plan complied with state law, the notification letter indicated that the state had significant concerns about the Planning Commission’s decision on the Vulcan Avenue project.

In the letter, state HCD land use and planning unit chief Shannan West wrote that her department believed the commission had used a “subjective process” to deny the development permits and wrote that the City Council should not follow the same course.

“HCD will continue to monitor the city’s processing of the Vulcan project and other by-right housing projects,” West added, mentioning that HCD had the ability to revoke the city’s compliance status and could even refer the issue to the state’s Office of the Attorney General.