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Oh, deer! Encinitas pols paralyzed in spotlight.

By Logan Jenkins - Jan. 29, 2013

Like four deer caught in headlights, the Encinitas City Council froze in fear last week. That’s not to say the matter at hand — whether to green- or red-light a 16-house tract on Olivenhain’s Desert Rose Way — is an easy call.

Solomon would have to do his homework to slice this bawling baby.

Woodridge Farms Estates, which bought a 6-acre horse-boarding ranch during the zenith of the housing market, is trying to exploit a state law that, in this specific case, allows some four extra houses in exchange for including one low-income dwelling.

It’s a fair bet that architects of the original “density bonus” law, passed in 1979, did not have a horsy town-and-country hamlet like O’hain in mind while rigging the rules in favor of low-income housing.

Nevertheless, the social engineering is on the books. It offers Woodridge a gambit: Pump up return on investment via an end run around local zoning.

In November, a bare majority of the Planning Commission struck a blow for home rule and rejected the Desert Rose project.

Emotionally satisfying, to be sure. Take that, Sacramento!

The city’s planning bureaucrats, on the other hand, are less inclined to throw tea into the harbor. They’ve concluded that the development plan meets the state’s density bonus requirements and must be approved or risk losing a lawsuit.

So far, a thousand pages of evidence have been submitted. Arguments have been heard multiple times, most notably by North County’s two most prominent environmental attorneys — for the developer, Marco Gonzalez, famous for opposing coastal fireworks and the Carlsbad desalination plant; and, for the O’hain residents, Everett DeLano, a courtroom leader of the Hundred Year War against the Gregory Canyon landfill in Fallbrook.

Immediately following last week’s repetitive marathon meeting — DeLano noted a sense of déjà vu — the council should have been amply prepared to vote. Instead of manning up, however, council members ran out the clock with vaguely relevant questions, ultimately voting to reconsider the project at a later date.

Despite ample information, this weak-kneed council was not ready to answer the only question that matters:

Is Encinitas willing to reject a development plan that rides roughshod over local control and, by so doing, risk a lawsuit that, if the city wins, will set off fireworks over Moonlight Beach or, if it loses, will call the council’s judgment into question?

As I said, it’s not an easy call. But making it is what the council was elected to do. Instead of stepping up to the plate, the council choked — and fled.

The developer, it should be noted, has played a masterful hand, retaining Gonzalez as the project’s public face. This is like hiring John Muir to build a strip mall on Highway 101.

During his remarks, Gonzalez asked a rhetorical question: “Is he (the developer) here to screw the city? Am I here to screw the city?” He paused before answering: “Not a chance.”

The subtext: I would not risk my eco-puritan brand by pushing a truly terrible project? Trust me.Gonzalez conceded that the density bonus law can suck eggs as policy, but since it exists and has teeth, he warned, Encinitas should be grateful that this developer is not going to maul the community character too badly. Trust me.

The former Encinitas council, more conservative and more seasoned, would not have gagged under the pressure. Chances are, a pragmatic majority (with Teresa Barth dissenting) would have agreed with the staff that, while the Desert Rose development may not be utopian, the project’s adverse effects on fire safety, traffic and the wetlands are not so grievous that prolonged litigation should be risked.

But this new council majority, which includes two rookies, is a horse of a different political color.

Former Mayor Sheila Cameron, no doubt echoing the thoughts of most of those in the chambers, said last week, “We chose you to bring about change. We are asking you to have courage and accept the challenge and make a stand here now.”

In six weeks or so, short of the developer pulling a less-dense dove out of a hat, the new council will be forced to do its job. It either approves Desert Rose — and turns Olivenhain into a wailing Greek chorus — or the council majority does what its populist instincts says it must do: Deny the project outright or, if it lacks the resolve to fight, fall back and order an environmental impact report as a legally dicey tactic to postpone the day of reckoning.

One of the greenest (in both senses of the word) councils in North County appears to be, under the blinding glare of the spotlight, the least sure of itself.

Poor dears.

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