Encinitas pushes back on ‘density bonus’ housing


For years, many Encinitas residents have protested “density bonus” housing to little avail. But on Wednesday night, July 16, they had reason to celebrate.

The City Council voted to alter several density bonus policies in hopes of shrinking the footprint of the projects. This drew applause from the large crowd that remained in council chambers until a quarter to midnight, when the agenda item concluded.

California’s density bonus law lets developers build extra homes on parcels if one or more of the units is dedicated to low-income residents.

But public speakers said it packs too many homes on parcels, killing community character. And many argued the city’s interpretation of the law has been encouraging the projects.

“We bend over backwards to accommodate developers,” resident Denise Martin said, adding density bonus tramples on city design guidelines.

Martin and others said the city wrongly rounds up its density bonus calculation, increasing the number of units on properties.

For instance, when city zoning allows six units on a property, the rounding up method can result in a maximum of 10 homes.

However, the council unanimously agreed it will round down from now on, reducing the number of units by one in this example.

By rounding down, Encinitas joins cities such as La Mesa and Los Angeles. Other cities like Carlsbad round up, though.

And the council also voted to forbid builders from counting land that cannot be developed — like a ravine or easement — toward density bonus calculations. Because lot size partly determines the number of permitted units, council’s change means less density.

Additionally, with Mayor Kristin Gaspar opposed, the council established a policy stating the affordable density bonus homes must be at least three-quarters the size and compatible with their market rate counterparts.

This came in response to some residents saying the low-income units are often too small. Or they’re inferior to the market rate homes, running afoul of the spirit of the law.

Gaspar, however, opposed the size requirement, stating it’s contrary to the goal of affordable housing because maintenance costs are often higher with bigger homes.

Lastly, the council voted to require that density bonus developers seeking waivers — a reduction in development standards — need to justify them with documentation.

“In the past, I’ve not found anyone to deny that waivers were granted without any real justification at all,” Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said, adding it’s time to alter the practice.

Council’s actions take effect immediately, meaning the eight density bonus projects that haven’t been permitted stand to be impacted.

Those include projects on Fulvia Street and Balour Drive, which are only in the planning stages, but nonetheless have drawn strong opposition.

Only one density bonus development has gone before the council for consideration in recent years.

The council approved the controversial Desert Rose project in March 2013. Back then, council members said California law superseded local rules, arguing their hands were tied.

Since then, Encinitas has lobbied at the state level to gain local control over the law. But state officials have told Encinitas more cities need to join the movement to bring about statewide reform.

Councilwoman Teresa Barth proposed the agenda item, which was first discussed last week, to alleviate frustration and confusion surrounding the matter, according to a staff report.

Public speaker Felix Tinkov, a lawyer, said the council’s changes are within the context of the density bonus law and would hold up under legal scrutiny.

Michael McSweeney, spokesman for the Building Industry Association of San Diego, disagreed.

“If your intention is to set in motion something that’s going to end up in court, that’s the road that you’re on,” McSweeney said.

He also argued density bonus is a critical source of affordable housing.

However, resident Kathleen Lindemann said there’s no requirement that the projects are built in proximity to public transit or services, and so they’re less likely to benefit low-income people.

“Desert Rose is the epitome of this,” Lindemann said.