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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007 | As San Diego development officials try to provide homebuilders with incentives to encourage affordable housing, the government is also grappling with the program’s impacts on a longstanding height limit on coastal development and other guidelines.

Under the proposed incentives, which mirror a 2004 state law, builders that include affordably priced homes in their project would be allowed to construct housing developments that are taller, wider or with fewer parking spots than the city would otherwise mandate.

But critics are concerned the city could be sacrificing too many planning regulations in order to buoy its depleted affordable-housing stock. They say the changes Mayor Jerry Sanders’ land use staff is proposing could allow developers to circumvent several of the city’s rules governing residential construction — as long as they agree to include affordable units within their project.

“This is going to be a way to do zone-busting, community plan-busting, all under the guise of affordable housing,” Councilwoman Donna Frye said.

The councilwoman cautions that the law is vague enough to allow developers to pierce the 30-foot height limit in San Diego’s coastal neighborhoods that voters passed in 1972, known as Proposition D. But Jim Waring, Sanders’ land-use and development chief, disagrees. “I can say unequivocally that if a developer asked for these deviations, the city would turn them down. It’s a non-issue,” he said.

Frye’s worries, however, have spread to City Attorney Mike Aguirre. The city attorney wants to postpone next Tuesday’s vote on the legislation — drafted by his office — because he said it is unclear.

Whether or not the proposal is as far-reaching as Frye alleges, slow-growth activists who frequently fight aggressive development have rallied against the bonus program. While the state law has proved controversial locally, the complaints never came up during the bill’s creation, its co-author said.

“Cities had some concerns about other things, but if they thought these issues should have been brought, they had the chance three years ago,” said state Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-Chula Vista, a co-author of the state law.

The city currently requires builders to restrict the prices on 10 percent of the homes they build, or to pay a fee that is used to finance affordable housing projects. That requirement has struggled to produce affordable units, as most developers opt to pay the surcharge and the funds have not been enough to keep pace with the city’s expectations.

Under the mayor’s current proposal, developers who include affordable housing can receive the right to build more densely on their properties or receive other incentives, such as the ability to forego some of the parking requirements the city typically requires. For example, a homebuilder who sets aside 10 percent of the homes on a project to be reasonably priced for a moderate-earning household can add 20 percent more square feet to their property. In addition to more density, the state law allows for cities and counties to provide their own incentives to affordable housing developers.

Waring said the city will allow three types of incentives to builders: permitting more density than is allowed under an existing blueprint for a community, allowing development closer to their side-yard fences, and reducing the number of parking spots they are obligated to provide their future residents.

By garnering more density, builders can increase the number of units for rent or sale on the property.

Frye claims the proposal is worded so broadly that the city will not be able to deny other requests developers might make. “If you don’t clearly define the terms, it can mean anything anyone wants it to be,” she said. Frye interprets the proposed law to allow developers a waiver from undergoing environmental reviews, paying infrastructure fees or honoring Proposition D, the 1972 ballot measure that sets a 30-foot height limit for buildings along the coast, if that’s how they wanted to cash in their incentives.

The risk of having Proposition D sidestepped by affordable-housing developers has generated enough worry among activists that they organized a press conference Monday in Ocean Beach to speak out against the bonus program.

Waring said the activists’ cries are for naught. He acknowledged that the program will have to evolve with time and that developers will be treated on a case-by-case basis. The program is already state law, he said, and developers could demand incentives like the ones laid out by the Legislature if they wanted to. By passing its own ordinance, the city has a chance to craft its own program, he said.

“A developer could come in today and ask for these deviations and we would have to grant them to the developer whether or not it’s on our own books,” Waring said.

Developers dismissed Frye’s claims, saying she was using them to stall development. “It takes them only a matter of months whenever they want to raise fees … but it’s taken them four years to comply with state law,” said Matthew Adams, governmental affairs director for the Building Industry Association of San Diego County. “It’s very frustrating from our perspective.”

Frye said she will continue to push for more specifics until she has a clear understanding about what restrictions the city will concede to affordable housing developers, and what it won’t. “The problem is the city’s analysis, how it’s done and what it means,” she said. “It’s not adequate.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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