Planning commission continues Encinitas apartment complex decision to Aug. 19

A rendering of the proposed Encinitas Boulevard Apartments.

The Encinitas Planning Commission continued a decision on the Encinitas Boulevard Apartment to its Thursday, Aug. 19 meeting.

The developer of the 283-apartment complex on Encinitas Boulevard on the corner of Rancho Santa Fe Road is seeking approval of a density bonus, design review permit and boundary adjustment. A total of 47 speakers signed up to provide public comment at the July 15 meeting, all opposed except for one.

Residents expressed concerns about traffic congestion, the impact on public safety due to wildfire evacuation and light pollution on the Olivenhain community dark skies. They argued that the project is too tall and too dense: “like putting an elephant on a turntable”, a project “over 500,000 square feet, the equivalent footprint of five Home Depots and possibly the tallest structure in Encinitas.”

“This mega-project will destroy the rural character and historic community known as Olivenhain,” said resident Jim Frost.

The neighboring Rancho Santa Fe Association also lodged its opposition due to the impacts on the environment and the gridlock that could prove to be “dangerous and disastrous” in the event of an emergency such as a wildfire when Rancho Santa Fe Road serves as a major evacuation route for Rancho Santa Fe Covenant residents.

“The impact of an additional 500-600 vehicles in this area is alarming,” stated the RSF Association board’s letter, read into record by RSF Association Board Director Laurel Lemarié. “The risks and impacts of this apartment project are far too great for our communities.”

The proposed apartment complex is located just behind the Olivenhain Platz shopping center that is anchored by 7-Eleven. The project will require the demolition of existing single-family homes and accessory units on the property.

The two buildings with 283 apartment units, a mix of one to three bedrooms, will be wrapped around a 472-stall parking structure. Per the plans, the buildings will be stepped up the hill and architectural details will break up the massing. Resident-serving amenities include a clubhouse and pool deck on top of the garage and 2.1 acres of open space, including ground-level courtyards, a dog park, a resident garden and an orchard.

The project’s only access from Encinitas Boulevard will be on McCain Lane with a new signalized intersection.

The project has been exempted from California Environmental Quality Act review as it is located in the R-30 zone designated for “by right” approval as it proposes that 41 of 205 units (20%) are affordable for lower-income households.

Encinitas staff has recommended denial of the density bonus, the design review permit and a boundary adjustment.

Held via Zoom, the July 15 hearing faced several challenges. With Chair Bruce Ehlers recusing himself and Commissioner Amy Flicker having resigned June 30, the commission was down to just three members. Commissioner Susan Sherod was out of town and struggled to find a reliable internet connection—there were concerns expressed that she missed portions of public comment. With the hearing nearing 10 p.m., she made a motion for the hearing to be continued, which failed.

Commissioner Steve Dalton then made a motion to close the public hearing and approve the staff recommendation to deny the project but it was not seconded. Dalton then made another motion to close the public hearing and continue the meeting to a date certain, to allow for more commissioner discussion. That motion passed.

State law limits the number of hearings for “by right” projects to five. The Aug. 18 hearing will be the third and the commission’s decision is appealable to city council.

Due to the high number of speakers, the time allowed to speak at the hearing was reduced from three to two minutes. Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development (RRD) had paid experts to do presentations on their comprehensive studies but they had to shorten them for time. Representing Encinitas RRD, Amy McCord said that it was unfair that their time was shortened by one-third while the applicant had more time to speak: “It was a failure to protect and promote the citizens’ right to be heard,” she said.

Acting as chair, Vice Chair Kevin Doyle said that he believed that parity had been achieved in public comments and added that the commissioners have read through thousands of pages of submitted commentary and have done their own research: “Your voice was heard tonight as clearly as anyone else’s,” he assured members of RRD.

Developer seeks three waivers
State laws intended to increase housing production have reduced the discretion that a city has in reviewing and approving projects like Encinitas Boulevard Apartments.

According to land use attorney Barbara Kautz, “by right” projects are limited to design review only and a city can only deny or reduce a project’s density based on objective standards contained in the city’s adopted plans, zoning ordinances and design standards. In this case, waivers would be required for the project’s height, stories and unit storage.

To accommodate the requested 35% density bonus, the applicant has asked to increase the height to 61 feet, increase the stories from three to six stories and to provide 119 rather than the 277 storage units required.

In the past, Kautz said the city has granted waivers for density bonus projects (over 30 of them) but none have requested an increase in stories or a height above 30 feet.

Because the waivers requested were so much greater, the city retained RRM Design Group to determine if the project could be accommodated with fewer or no waivers. RRM’s analysis showed that it would be possible to accommodate the developer’s program without the height and storage waivers and only a one-story waiver.

“The city invited the applicant on several occasions to apply modifications to the project that could result in fewer waivers and the applicant and his representatives have asserted that once eligible for a density bonus, all waivers must be granted and the city has no discretion to deny any waivers,” Kautz said.

Due to the “substantial evidence” that waivers are not needed to achieve the density, staff recommended denial as the project doesn’t comply with city’s objective standards.

At the hearing, developer Randy Goodson argued that the RRM study is not objective or quantifiable—it creates an alternative project with the same square footage that has lower height, lower stories and more storage but there are no measurements to show how they made that determination. The alternative also does not include the same open space and setbacks from the road, he said.

Attorney Tim Hutter said it is a variation on an old theme, that developers should “just build smaller homes, cut away open space, lower ceiling heights and take away the pool or remove some other amenity.”

Hutter said the only project that should be analyzed for eligibility for waivers is the project proposed by the applicant. To require study of so-called project alternatives violates state law.

“We have presented the best project that we can,” Goodson said. “We have not gone for maximum density, we have not gone for maximum height. We have gone for the minimum height that is necessary to accommodate a project that meets the city’s ordinances.”

According to Encinitas RRD and McCord, the project exemplifies the most “extreme” application of density bonus and by-right development rules.

“This project only exists because at various times, it has dangled in front of us a promise to help alleviate the affordable housing crisis in our city,” said Juliana Maxim of Encinitas RDD. “The project will do almost nothing to reduce the housing cost burden in our city.”

Maxim described how the 42 affordable units are smaller than the market rate units and can not accommodate a family, with lesser amenities such as no balconies or windows in the bedroom.

“It is the developer, not the city who is squeezing the size of affordable units. All affordable units are placed in the least desirable location with the least light and most noise, no views and right next to the parking garage,” she said. “They exist only to satisfy the affordable unit count rather than the welfare of the tenants.”

Opponents stated that the project’s traffic impact has also been underestimated. According to a local transportation analysis, the project will generate an average of 1,698 total new average daily trips including 136 in the morning peak hour and 153 during the afternoon peak hour.

Goodson has said that the project does not make the traffic on Rancho Santa Fe Road worse and it does not worsen the intersection’s level of service.

Residents argued that traffic is already “horrendous” in peak hours and questioned how McCain Lane, which they said is little more than a small alleyway, will handle all of those daily trips.

Residents of Olivenhain and Rancho Santa Fe said they have real fears about evacuating in the event of a wildfire. The already congested roads would become a “death trap” in the event of a fire, said Rancho Santa Fe resident Holly Manion.

Denny Neville, a retired Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District chief, said approving a plan that adds over 400 vehicles attempting to access the same roadway as 5,000-plus residents in order to escape a wildfire is “absurd.”

“From a standpoint of evacuation alone, it produces potential catastrophic impacts on the community of Olivenhain and portions of Rancho Santa Fe,” Neville said.

According to the city’s Principal Planner Anna Colamussi, the project does meet the city’s fire requirements.

The commission will pick up their discussions on the project at the Aug. 19 hearing. At that meeting, they are expected to have their commission vacancy filled so there will be four voting members; Ehlers will remain recused.