Homes in Encinitas / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

After years of defying California law, Encinitas is getting serious about housing. So serious, in fact, that local officials are suing as many as 100 residents behind a measure that’s prevented the city from implementing a new housing plan.

Encinitas is trying to clarify a conflict between state law and its own local measure — a citizen-led initiative that allows voters to veto major land use changes. In effect, the city is dragging the most prominent backers of that measure, Proposition A, into court.

That measure is part of the reason Encinitas was for years the only city in San Diego County not to have a state-approved plan on the books identifying locations where new housing units could someday be built.

In 2016 and 2018, voters rejected housing plans that could lead to the development of more housing in their neighborhoods.

Now, both state and local officials want to avoid another showdown at the ballot box and the legal fiasco that would follow if yet another housing plan fails to win enough support. Developers and low-income tenants have sued the city in the past for failing to comply with state law. Late last year, a judge agreed that Prop. A was the main obstacle and suspended it for the current housing cycle, which began in 2013.

Starting in 2021, Encinitas will be legally obligated to send the state another housing plan. But Prop. A will still be an obstacle.

Encinitas is asking the court for relief, so that the City Council can adopt and implement housing plans without a vote of the people. In the complaint, officials say they’ve tried to work with residents for years, and subsequent lawsuits have been “extremely costly.”

In February, Gov. Gavin Newsom summoned Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and dozens of other leaders from cities across the state that were also out of compliance with state housing law. He told reporters that he wanted to stress upon local officials the importance of doing their part to ease the housing crisis. But the event also functioned as a kind of shaming exercise.

In a newsletter last week, Blakespear wrote that officials were compelled to go to court by the state as a condition of getting the latest housing plan certified and needed to name someone as a defendant, so they chose “Preserve Prop A,” whose members conceived of the initiative and have fought to keep it in place.

“This isn’t a case of Encinitas ‘suing its citizens’ for damages,” she said, likely referring to this local blog post. “The reality is that we’re asking a judge to decide — as a matter of law — how we should proceed, and inviting both perspectives to officially weigh in.”

The group’s attorney, Everett Delano, who helped write Prop. A, sees it differently. He described the city’s lawsuit as “an affront” to democracy and said the city was using its own residents as scapegoats. He may try to get it thrown out, he said, on the grounds that it unfairly censors its own citizens.

His group has long maintained that, despite the findings of the California Department of Housing and Community Development and a Superior Court judge, Prop. A and state housing laws are not incompatible. As proof, they’ve pointed to other cities with housing plans on the books that also allow residents to veto major changes to zoning rules.

The city agrees. It’s not trying to kill Prop. A outright. Instead, it’s trying to exclude the housing plan process from going to the people in the future. If successful, Prop. A could still be triggered — but only for individual development projects that are seeking special permission to, say, build more units on a site than the housing plan allows.

But from Delano’s perspective, by taking away the ability of residents to vote on housing plans — and to serve as a check on the City Council — the lawsuit could effectively undermine Prop. A’s key component.

Every eight years, California requires municipalities to prove that its officials have zoned enough land to accommodate housing at all income levels. The plan acts more like a blueprint. It highlights specific sites for development, describes the density that’s permitted there and states how many units it could hold.

That’s important because the state has determined San Diego County must plan for the construction of more than 170,000 new homes over the next decade. By helping to develop the formula used to divvy units across the region as vice chair of the San Diego Association of Governments board of directors, Blakespear is playing a key role in the production of new homes — a remarkable development given her city’s history.

For many years, Encinitas had either been unwilling or unable to plan for new housing. Yet one of its elected leaders is now leading the push publicly for more housing by urging fellow leaders to stop shrugging off their responsibilities.

Not surprisingly, the new housing numbers are generating a great deal of controversy. As KPBS reported, cities with more jobs and transit are getting a higher allocation of units than in years past, with the hope of shortening people’s commutes and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At a forum in San Diego last week, Blakespear said she feels confident standing her ground on housing now that there is stronger pressure and possible enforcement coming from the state.

“There are some things that have been taken out of our hands, like by the courts, who’ve said, ‘You have to have a housing plan and we don’t care that your voters rejected it twice. You have to do it.’ And there’s something about that that’s very freeing,” Blakespear said.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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