Encinitas council denies appeals, allows homeless parking lot to relocate

The downtown Encinitas sign
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/Zuma Pre)

Jewish Family Service program moving to city’s Community & Senior Center next month


City staff members acted lawfully when they recommended approval of Jewish Family Service’s plans to relocate its overnight homeless parking lot program to the Encinitas Community & Senior Center, the Encinitas City Council decided Wednesday, Dec. 8.

The council unanimously voted to deny two appeals of decisions related to the relocation plan. Both appeals were filed by Encinitas resident Steve Gerken, and supported by many Oak Crest Middle School parents and school officials.

One appeal stated that the Community & Senior Center’s zoning was not compatible with the overnight parking program. The other said that the city should not have approved issuing a coastal development permit, which will allow a temporary trailer used by homeless program staff to locate on the community center’s parking lot.

Councilman Joe Mosca, an attorney, said that it was “fairly easy” for him to make the decision that the project approvals were legal. What would have been hard, he said later, was to refuse to allow the program to continue to operate in Encinitas.

“What is difficult for me is to sit up here and do nothing,” he continued. “To see that the situation of the unhoused and food-insecure folks is only getting more intense and I have an opportunity to do something about it and I do nothing.”

Councilman Tony Kranz, who voted against the relocation proposal in October and has said in the past that he had concerns about the way the new site was picked, joined the other council members in voting to deny the appeals. Contacted Thursday morning, Dec. 9, he said that city development services director Roy Sapa’u’s explanation of how the relocation permit approvals complied with city codes was key to his vote.

At the Wednesday, Dec. 8, meeting, council members had stressed that their debate would be focused on whether the project’s permit approvals were compliant, not whether the program should be allowed to relocate next month; that decision has already been made, they said.

Jewish Family Service began operating its 25-spot Encinitas homeless parking lot program in early 2020 on Leichtag Foundation property accessed via a locked gate off Saxony Road. The state grant-funded program aims to assist people who are living temporarily in their vehicles and might need a helping hand to prevent them from becoming permanently homeless. The parking lot opens each night at 6 p.m. and everyone is required to leave by 7 a.m. the following day. In order to use the lot, people must be pre-screened in advance at an off-site location and their vehicle cannot be an RV or a motorcycle.

Located at the corner of Encinitas Boulevard and Balour Drive, the community center property shares a short access road — Oakcrest Park Drive — with Oak Crest Middle School, and also counts among its many neighbors the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, Oak Crest Park and several preschool programs. The site’s selection as the new location for the homeless parking program outraged many nearby homeowners, parents and school officials.

For his appeal presentation Wednesday, Dec. 8, Gerken assembled a team that included the new San Dieguito Union High School District Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward and coastal law attorney Julie Hamilton.

During her testimony, Hamilton repeatedly told council members that she did not believe the city had complied with state law and city development codes.

Among other things, Hamilton said, the city’s approval of a coastal development permit for the trailer did not follow state law and the community center’s existing major-use permit did not allow a homeless shelter on the site. The city’s development services director later told the council that he did not agree with Hamilton’s positions. The parking lot program is allowed under a recently approved shelter crisis act; there’s enough extra parking spaces to accommodate the homeless parking program while still meeting the community center’s permit requirements; and the trailer is considered a temporary use, Sapa’u said.

During his part of the appeal presentation, Gerken stressed that he is not opposed to the concept of the parking lot, but believes the new site is a poor choice and the city’s process for picking it was badly handled. Unlike the Leichtag site, the community center’s lower parking lot area has no security fencing, no gated entrance and relatively little privacy, Gerken said.

The school superintendent told the council that she had extensive experience in operating a school near a homeless population because she’s the former leader of e3 Civic High, a charter school in downtown San Diego. James-Ward said her school had five to seven security officers a day to provide “safe passage” for students heading to the San Diego school. The relocated Encinitas parking lot program will have security at night when the users are in the lot, but she questioned what will happen during the day.