Attorney General warns Encinitas to approve modified housing project

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

City needs to take ‘corrective action’ on new version of Encinitas Boulevard Apartment project, Bonta says


State Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Thursday, March 24, that he’s taking a keen interest in the controversial Encinitas Boulevard Apartment proposal and will hold the city accountable if it fails to approve a new version of the controversial building plans.

In a letter written for Bonta and addressed to the city’s mayor, the state’s Deputy Attorney General Matthew Struhar wrote that he understands the developers now are planning to submit a revised version of their previous proposal, which the city rejected last year.

The new proposal is expected to contain even more low-income housing units and this time around, Encinitas had bettered do right by the project, or else, he wrote.

“We urge the city to take prompt action to consider and approve the revised project if and when a new application is submitted,” Struhar wrote. “If the city fails to do so, the Attorney General is prepared to take immediate steps to hold the city accountable.”

Reached Thursday afternoon, March 24, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she could not comment on specifics related to the Encinitas Boulevard Apartment project because of the threat of litigation, but said “Encinitas takes its housing obligations seriously and remains committed to doing its part to address the state’s housing crisis.

“Less than one year after getting state approval for the city’s housing plan, the city has approved more than half of the city’s total assigned goal for the next eight years,” she continued. ”We are aware of state housing laws and working diligently to stay in compliance with them. I appreciate the Attorney General’s reminder about the applicable laws and when the Encinitas Blvd. Apartments application is resubmitted, the City Council will consider it right away.”

The fight over the apartment complex proposal dates back several years. The massive development — currently proposed to be 277 units plus a multi-story parking garage — is proposed to go on a nearly 7-acre site near the busy Encinitas Boulevard and Rancho Santa Fe Road intersection. While the site is mostly visible from Rancho Santa Fe Road near the 7-11 shopping center, the main access point is proposed to be Encinitas Boulevard via the private McCain Lane.

The apartment complex structures are proposed to top out at 69 feet — far higher than the city’s standard height limit of 39 feet. Both the height of the buildings and the massive look of the structures has drawn the ire of people who live in the surrounding Olivenhain region, which is known for its upscale, single-family homes on large lots.

In November, the City Council rejected two appeals of city permit decisions related to the project, and ruled that the city’s Planning Commission acted correctly in August when it denied permits for development proposal. One appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision was filed by the developer Randy Goodson, who argued that the city didn’t have the authority to deny the building plans because this should be considered a “by-right” development under state low-income housing laws. Goodson is proposing to set aside 41 of the proposed 277 units for low-income people and that qualifies the project for special treatment and waivers from some city building requirements.

The other appeal was filed by the opponents’ group Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development. The opponents’ group argued that the Planning Commission should have denied the permit requests on additional grounds, including fire safety concerns.

In his four-page letter to the mayor Thursday, March 24, Struhar wrote that he believed the city violated both the state’s Housing Accountability Act and the Density Bonus Law when it failed to approve the development plans. The wealthy community of Encinitas needs to do more to address “significant disparities in housing needs” and prevent the creation of segregated housing areas, he added.

It’s particularly noteworthy that this proposed project would go into the Olivenhain region, which has “even higher home values than the city as a whole,” he wrote. Given that this is the only site in the Olivenhain area that has been set aside by the city for multifamily, lower-income housing, the city’s decision to deny the project the permits it needs to proceed is particularly troubling, he added.

And, if the city fails to address this situation in the proper fashion, it could find itself out of compliance entirely with state housing law and thus would lose the power to reject housing projects that are inconsistent with the city’s zoning or its general plan, he wrote.

“Although the city violated state law when it disapproved the project, it appears that the city will have the opportunity to correct that error by approving the revised project in the near future. If the city fails to approve the revised project, then the Attorney General will take prompt action to hold the City accountable,” he concluded.