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Bigger Watermark “By Right”

The Government Code directs that the City “may not disapprove a housing development project, nor require a conditional use permit, planned unit development permit, or other locally imposed discretionary permit, or impose a condition that would render the project infeasible.”

We now see the first tangible consequence of the recent votes by Council Members Druker and Gaasterland to veto the actions necessary to remedy the City’s noncompliance with the Housing Element of our Community Plan: a larger Watermark housing project, developed “by right,” with greatly reduced community input, and no discretionary or environmental review.

Why is the Watermark developer proceeding with a “by right” development? Until now, the City and the Watermark developer were pursuing a Specific Plan strategy with the tacit blessing of the State: a Plan that would reduce the density of the development and meet community concerns, but still produce the affordable housing units needed from this property. The Plan would have kept the project at two stories, reduced the number of units well below 20 units/acre, and preserved DRB’s significant role to shape the project’s design.

But when Gaasterland and Druker vetoed the North Commercial (NC) zoning amendments required by our Housing Element (HE) on September 8, the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) notified the City that we are in noncompliance, giving us 30 days (until Oct. 30) to respond before taking action against us. HCD cited not only the failure to rezone NC, but also the failure to up-zone the Watermark property to 20-25 units/acre for development “by right,” as required by our current HE. In other words, HCD is no longer willing to wait to see if a Specific Plan is approved as a substitute for the up-zone.
A consequence of the City’s noncompliance is that it gives developers the right to pursue projects as though we had complied with our HE, which means the Watermark developer can pursue a development “by right.” And that is precisely the path the developer is now choosing, as detailed in an Oct. 16 letter from its attorney to the City. Notably, the letter points out that it is clear the Specific Plan cannot gain the required 4/5ths Council vote in the foreseeable future, based on “the unabashed disdain for residential development at required densities in the North Commercial zone by two members of City Council” – i.e., Gaasterland and Druker. “By right” development plans are expected to be filed shortly.

“By right” means no discretionary review by the DRB or Planning Commission, no environmental review under CEQA, and no Specific Plan shaping the project to meet community concerns. These are key tools of local control that have long allowed us to protect neighborhood character under the Community Plan. Under “by right” processing, the Government Code directs that the City “may not disapprove a housing development project, nor require a conditional use permit, planned unit development permit, or other locally imposed discretionary permit, or impose a condition that would render the project infeasible.”

Watermark’s letter states they will be filing plans for a 48-unit project, including 10 affordable units, instead of the Specific Plan proposal of 38 units, including 6 affordable units, with 3 donated to the City as an “exceptional public benefit.”
Project planners state that the revised project will move units from the hillside to protect environmentally sensitive habitat, including Torrey Pine trees, and comply with the Bluff, Slope, & Canyon overlay. Wetlands will be separated by a 50-ft buffer. New fire protection measures will include fire resistant siding and roof materials and a new emergency fire evacuation route at the southern end of the property (which will also be available to San Dieguito Road evacuees through the project parking structure). Because of the reduced size of the buildable lot, several structures will be three stories above the parking podium. The affordable units will mirror the mix of 3-, 2-, and 1-bedroom market units so that families can be accommodated.

Bottom line: Had we come into compliance with State law and completed the Specific Plan process with Watermark, we would be looking at a 38-unit project as described above. Instead, after vigorous opposition from some nearby residents and two Council members with respect to the Watermark project and the North Commercial zoning amendments required by our Housing Element, we are now looking at a 48-unit project with no discretionary review, no environmental review, and minimal community input into the final project. This is Exhibit A of what it means to be in noncompliance with State housing law, and with the Housing Element portion of our Community Plan. Unless we dramatically change course and come into compliance with State housing law, this is just the first of many examples coming our way of losing local control over our zoning and development, including the rest of North Commercial, North Bluff, and South Bluff (Staver).

 

 

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