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Reluctant supes approve density bonus update - Jacob calls it "a terrible program;" Slater-Price says, "It destroys community character"

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors reluctantly approved an update of the county’s Zoning Ordinance sections regarding density bonuses.

The supervisors’ 5-0 vote August 4 updates some density bonus regulations to conform to state law while consolidating three types of density bonuses into a single section of the Zoning Ordinance. “The density bonus in my opinion is a terrible program,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “It looks like we have no choice because it’s a state mandate.”

Developers can exceed maximum zoning or general plan density without a zoning or general plan amendment under certain conditions such as affordable housing or units reserved for seniors. Conditions which allow a developer to qualify for a density bonus include ten percent of the total number of base units reserved for low-income households, five percent of the total number of base units reserved for very low income households, a senior citizen housing development, a mobile home park which limits residency based on age requirements, ten percent of the total dwelling units of a common interest development reserved for moderate-income households, and all units reserved at an affordable rent to very low income, low-income, or moderate-income seniors.

Donation of land to the county for very low income housing can also qualify a developer for a density bonus as well as an increased density bonus if other conditions are met, and if a qualifying project includes a child care facility the density bonus can also be increased.

The county made changes where the state left discretion to local jurisdictions. “We tried to tighten that up in terms of how those incentives are determined,” said Joe Farace of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use.

“If you don’t take any action at this point, it will be worse,” deputy County Counsel Tom Montgomery said of the supervisors’ consideration of the unpopular density bonus.

“We’re doing everything that we can legally without being sued,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price.

“We have to deal with this,” said Supervisor Bill Horn. “I don’t want to see it get worse, and I don’t want to see them put their nose under our tent further.”

The density bonus, which was 25 percent for qualifying units, now ranges from five percent to 35 percent depending upon the amount of reserved units and the income category restriction. An applicant is entitled to receive up to three incentives or concessions depending on the amount of income-restricted housing provided.

Any development standards which physically preclude the construction of a development at the density permitted by the bonus law must be reduced or waived unless that maximum density would have a specific adverse effect on public health and safety or the physical environment.

A density bonus permit process will be created which will apply to all types of housing projects, including mobile home parks. An applicant will be required to meet specified conditions when requesting incentives and must submit financial documentation which demonstrates the need for the requested incentives. The permit replaces the previous Major Use Permit requirement.

The new policy also includes parking requirements, which were not present in the previous policy.

The county’s policy on affordable housing for elderly households and the county’s policy for mobile home parks were consolidated into the density bonus section of the Zoning Ordinance. The density bonus program for low-income seniors had required a Major Use Permit but now requires an Administrative Use Permit, which requires notification of nearby property owners but does not require a hearing unless either the applicant or an affected party requests such a hearing, in which case the county’s Zoning Administrator holds the hearing and the matter goes to the Planning Commission if either side appeals the Zoning Administrator’s decision.

In order to qualify for the senior density bonus incentive 100 percent of the project units, including the bonus units, must be reserved for rental to moderate or lower-income seniors. The bonus will vary from 40 to 50 percent based on income category, replacing density bonuses of up to 150 percent for very low income senior housing.

“The proposed density bonus permit will be used to increase General Plan density,” said Jack Phillips, the chair of the Valle de Oro Community Planning Group. “Some of our marginal neighborhoods will be drawn backwards to the urban blight.”

Phillips also noted that the new permits will be issued at the county department level rather than by the Planning Commission, which has the authority to issue Major Use Permits subject to an appeal to the Board of Supervisors. “This leaves our unincorporated communities with no way to seek redress of our concerns,” he said.

Phillips also took exception to reduced parking requirements for low-income and moderate-income housing. “Low and moderate income households own just as many vehicles as the family norm,” he said.

Unincorporated Escondido resident Douglas Hogue warned the supervisors that a developer who receives the density bonus might not be involved by the time the project is finished. “We need to be protected,” he said.

One of the actions the supervisors took independent of the state density bonus mandate was to direct staff to look into implementing a public transit requirement for density bonus areas. “Many seniors aren’t able to drive,” Slater-Price said.

The motion also included sending a letter to the county’s state legislators and to Governor Schwarzenegger stating the county’s displeasure of the state making land use decisions traditionally under the purview of local governments. “It destroys rational planning. It destroys quality of life and it destroys community character,” Slater-Price said.

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