ENCINITAS — As candidates for the Encinitas City Council make early gains in their respective campaigns, it’s become clear that one issue is at the forefront of their minds — conserving open space in Encinitas.
“All of us need ‘Vitamin N’ (nature) in our lives as an integral aspect of physical and mental health,” said Pamela Redela, a candidate for District 4. “The various trails and parks within Encinitas are popular with residents, myself included.”
Julie Thunder, a District 3 candidate, wants to see funding reinstated back into city purchases of open spaces. Thunder has been an active opponent of the council’s 2019 decision to redirect $590,000 of a $1.18-million fund to purchase open space to help pay for the Circulation Element (now the Mobility Element).
In 2020, the City Council transferred $410,000 of the remaining Open Space Fund to the Opportunity Fund, a reconfiguration of the former special projects fund that did not directly impact land acquisition. The fund is No. 119 in the city’s proposed 2022-23 Operating Budget and is listed as “Special Projects.”
Thunder says those funds are “disappearing into nothing land” rather than preserving open land.
“We need to have these monies set aside so that when opportunities arise, we’re ready to go,” Thunder said, adding the state generally favors project-ready cities come grant time.
District 3 incumbent Councilwoman Joy Lyndes sees it a little differently. Lyndes is eyeing state dollars to conserve areas of the native landscape and other biological open space. The term “open space” can refer to any configuration of landscaping that doesn’t include a building or structure.
Council members Lyndes and Kellie Hinze recently championed a Conservation of Open Space resolution, which moves to strategize with local nonprofit organizations to leverage state funds and generate robust grant applications for multi-beneficial projects.
“I focused it specifically on open space because we have so many opportunities that were not captured before this time on preservation,” Lyndes said. “Open space is valuable to our community. It’s our green infrastructure. It’s like the lungs of our community.”
Part of that leverage includes beefing up the Encinitas Habitat Stewardship Program, which was created in 2020 “to help upkeep City-owned properties that contains sensitive habitat.”
Lyndes said there’s viable funding through leveraging relationships with the state and local partners. The Escondido Creek Conservancy, Cottonwood Creek Conservancy, botanical gardens, and other local open space managers pitting the city’s boundaries will work together to determine plans for habitat conservation.
“We’re looking at it from the perspective of being very proactive about understanding that it’s going to be coming out to the state,” Lyndes said. “And we really want to position ourselves so that we can put together these multi-benefit projects associated with the expansion of our open space not only in our stewardship.”
An increase in spending for habitat rehabilitation was noted under the parks maintenance budget for the next fiscal year. The fund is proposed to increase from $225,548 to $232,089.
When asked about the current amount and revenue change in 2022-23 for the Encinitas Habitat Stewardship Program, Finance Director Teresa McBroome said those amounts would be finalized with the budget.
Lyndes, though, stressed the amount had doubled.
Some in the community have criticized the resolution — calling it weak or disingenuous — fails to address reinstating an open space acquisition fund. However, following the intent of the February resolution, the City Council did move funds to its Encinitas Habitat Stewardship Program, according to Lyndes.
“There’s no acknowledgment of the money, any money; there’s no action,” Thunder said. “There’s no promise to do action. I was stunned because we have a council that claims to be environmentally focused; they claim it, but they often aren’t.”
The funds debated were called the Open Space Acquisition Fees Fund, which grew due to a dedicated flow of developer fees. Thunder said she would like zoning efforts to dictate better where development goes in areas where wildlife thrives in Encinitas.
“We really should not be leapfrogging out into areas where there’s not sufficient infrastructure, and there’s not transit,” Lyndes agreed, adding the city must consider “smart” planning moving forward.
While Lyndes is wary of connecting land use with developers, she wouldn’t oppose reconsidering developer funds.
“There are so many reasons why it doesn’t make sense to leapfrog your housing out into areas where there is open space,” Lyndes said. “So, my objective is really to fortify our open space and look at extending it.”
While Lyndes agrees development should focus on areas with the lowest impact, she doesn’t agree with connecting development and open land. According to Lyndes, it’s not a fair judgment and a highly political tool.
“I don’t make the connection between open space and development,” Lyndes said. “Because I think when we do that, we fail. Open space stands on its own. Natural landscaping and the ability to move freely outside is an essential piece of life in Encinitas.”
Bruce Ehlers, the city’s former planning chairman now running for council in District 4, agreed, referring to public surveys — including the latest master plan for parks, beaches and trails — that list open space as a top priority since the 1980s.
During a June 23 mayoral debate, candidates discussed the need for community preservation as development continues to cause tensions in the community.
Candidate Michael Blobe said he’ll do what he could to “keep everything rural” regarding his Leucadia neighborhood.
“(Leucadia) used to be considered rural, and that’s why you wanted to live there,” Blobe told potential constituents at the debate. “Leucadia is blowing up right now.”
Encinitas residents, as made clear through the creation and successful defense of Proposition A, are wary of losing open space to housing developments that don’t achieve state goals.
Some mayor-hopefuls, including Blobe, proposed ramping up affordable housing overlay requirements to lower the impact on the ground — by creating an adequate housing supply that meets state requirements — and possibly slow development.
Ehlers said it’s hard not to pit developed space with under-developed space because “open space” is a broad term. To planners, the term is equivalent to “no structures.”
Ehlers recalled when the council turned down the Planning Commission’s unanimous recommendation to set R-30 zones to mandatory 50% inclusionary housing capacities — which would have a lower impact on land in the long term.
Instead, the council approved a 15% inclusionary housing requirement for projects within R-30 areas (residential zoning parcels with a density of 30 dwellings units per hectare, or 2.47 acres).
“Fifteen percent means 85% has to be built at market rates,” Ehlers explained. “But if the 15% is the only portion that’s going to satisfy the [Regional Housing Needs Assessment] requirements… that means your building six times your RHNA number.”
The council candidates all agree that more can be done to conserve open spaces.
“I think the city is in a tough spot with the need to balance our requirement to provide adequate housing and our love for open space,” Redela said. “I think finding a balance is possible and will work to find that solution should I be elected to the council.”
Lyndes and Ehlers are also a part of a group in the preliminary stages of a native plant ordinance that would ensure certain plants and areas can flourish.
The ordinance aims to “define, enact and apply the requirement that certain areas that are biologically sensitive and part of a development be reserved, protected and sustained for their life as natural open space,” Ehlers said.