By Richard Riehl
A couple of days ago I came across an article in the Vista Press about the September 6 meeting of the city’s Planning Commission, during which a developer’s site plan to build a 41-unit apartment complex along Creek Walk in downtown Vista was approved (A Two Water Bottle Night at the City Planning Commission Meeting, Sept. 9). Writer Pat Murphy’s description of the meeting was eerily reminiscent of the August 25, 2015 Carlsbad City Council meeting, where a developer’s plan to build a shopping mall on the banks of the Hedionda Lagoon was unanimously approved, despite an overflow audience of residents voicing their opposition to the project.
Murphy called Vista’s meeting a “two water bottle night” to describe the lengthy session, with standing room only attendance for opponents of the project. The first to speak was an individual introducing herself as a representative of a group calling themselves, “Vistans for a Livable Community.” That sounded to me a lot like the group that dubbed themselves “Citizens for North County,” who spearheaded the defeat of the developer’s plan for Carlsbad.
The complaints about Vista’s development plans also sound familiar. As Murphy put it, they were passionately anti-“high density” housing, with warnings of traffic congestion and inadequate parking. When one Commissioner pressed the parking issue, asking for an additional 11 parking spaces, and other Commissioners agreed, the developer readily granted their request.
Unlike the Carlsbad City Council’s rock solid refusal to be moved by lagoon mall opponents, Vista’s Planning Commission appeared swayed by audience opposition. They were about to vote to deny the developer’s proposal, when Assistant City Attorney Jonathan Stone put a stop to their rush to judgment.
“Please let me inform you of something before you take your vote. According to State Law the Planning Commission cannot disapprove this type of project. There is a section of the California Fair Housing Act that you need to see.”
After a brief recess, and without a word about what they’d heard from Stone, the Commissioners voted 6 to 1 to approve the developer’s plan.
So, what was the purpose of the public hearing? With no explanation of that mysterious codicil in California Code that stopped the planning commission and audience members in their tracks, I emailed Stone to ask for his source.
“The relevant statute is Government Code Section 65589.5(j),” Stone explained. “The statute requires approval of a housing development which ‘complies with applicable, objective general plan and zoning standards and criteria, including design review standards…’ unless the development will produce a ‘specific adverse impact upon the public health or safety…’ based on ‘objective, identified written public health or safety standards.’ “Subject to appeal rights to the City Council, Vista’s Planning Commission can finally approve applications for site development plans.”
Stone’s quotes are accurate but incomplete. The Code acknowledges another option for the Commission’s decision: “to approve it upon the condition that the project be developed at a lower density.” It appears the Commission could have chosen a third option.
If it’s true they could only vote to approve the plan, the agenda item promising a “Public Hearing” was misleading. A more appropriate title would have been a “Report to the Public.” It appears Vista city leaders have found the recipe for public distrust that the Carlsbad City Council found after last year’s August 25th meeting.
The next step for Vistans for a Livable Community might be to exercise their appeal rights to the City Council, citing the same California law cited by Stone.
Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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