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New Planning Director Looks to Stem the Tide of Solana Beach's Affordability Woes

In a Q-and-A, Solana Beach’s new planning director Bill Chopyk talks about his desire to balance the coastal city’s character – and desire to maintain its ocean views – with the need for more housing.

Bill Chopyk started his new gig as Solana Beach’s planning director three weeks ago, after more than eight years with the same job in La Mesa. He walked into a challenge – California’s coastal communities are notorious for their expensive housing and community resistance to new, higher-density housing projects.

Last month, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled against neighbors challenging a plan to build a three-story, 10-unit affordable housing complex a block away from the Solana Beach coast. The homeowners behind the lawsuit say they will likely appeal the decision.

Chopyk has enjoyed his first days in Solana Beach in style, going boogie boarding during his lunch breaks or after work until traffic dies down.

Boogie-boarding notwithstanding, he’s got constant reminders that his old and new cities aren’t so far apart. He still lives in La Mesa’s Fletcher Hills area, named for the same Ed Fletcher – a San Diego developer and California state senator from the early 1900s – as Solana Beach’s Fletcher Cove. And upon arriving in his new office, Chopyk found an old, worn book that his predecessor had left – Ed Fletcher’s memoir.

Chopyk sat down with me to talk about how he hopes to balance Solana Beach’s character – and desire to maintain its ocean views – with the need for more housing in the city. He has spent 30 years working in planning, including for Belmont, Pasadena, Claremont and the Port of San Diego, but Solana Beach presents a unique set of issues.

“I’ve worked for four other California cities and every city is different and unique,” he said. “And there is definitely a character in Solana Beach that you don’t find in other cities. I want to be respectful of that.”

What are some of the major development issues you’ll be facing in Solana Beach?

Certainly density bonus projects that, under state law, developers can ask for higher density in exchange for providing affordable housing or senior housing they can request a density bonus. I think some of the large density bonus projects and getting them through the city’s review will be a big challenge.

Another one is getting the local coastal program certified and implemented, so that the city of Solana Beach can begin to issue its own coastal development permits rather than having the local residents and businesses here having to go to the Coastal Commission for their coastal development permits.

I think those are some of the big challenges here.

Do you mind explaining why density bonus projects are difficult to get through here?

It’s more difficult to make a higher-density project fit within [Solana Beach’s] context and be designed so that it’s compatible and doesn’t impact the views of surrounding residents.

Why is it important for permitting to go through Solana Beach, rather than the Coastal Commission?

Say you want to build an addition to your house. You would only have to go through a city process that would include the issuance of a coastal development permit, rather than having to go through the city’s development review process and then when you’re finished with that, start the Coastal Commission process.

And they may not always match. It streamlines the process so residents can get property improvements done in a more expeditious manner.

What are some of the differences planning-wise between working in a coastal community, like Solana Beach, and communities like La Mesa?

Being in the coastal zone, it adds a layer of review, which is the coastal development permits. And whereas in an inland city like La Mesa, they are outside of the coastal zone so it doesn’t have that added layer of review for development.

And in Solana Beach, there is a view assessment ordinance, so that any building over 16 feet in height has to put up story poles – where, before you build something, you would put up the story poles that would show the outline of the structure and allow surrounding residents to comment on that before the development would proceed. That process you’ll find more in the coastal communities, where there is more concern about views – you know, ocean views – versus up in the more inland areas, you typically don’t have the view assessment ordinance that protects private views.

San Diego’s coastal communities are famously resistant to dense housing. Can you increase the city’s housing supply without running into community opposition?

Yes, it can be done. But the important thing for getting new housing projects approved in this city is making sure that it fits within the context.

I know that the residents take the view-protection ordinance very seriously and want to make sure that they’re not overwhelmed by new development. But there are certainly some sites in the city – either vacant or underutilized or blighted sites – that present good opportunities for new development that is going to increase property values and fit well within the city and help to achieve some of the housing goals that the city has.

There’s a three-story, 10-unit affordable housing complex, The Pearl, which has faced quite a bit of opposition recently. Why do you think a project like that is facing such backlash here?

It’s change. It’s resistance to change. I don’t know the specific issues on that development. I know that it’s gone through some litigation and the city, as I understand it, prevailed in the lawsuit.

So then, do you think the community would be willing to support another housing project built specifically for low-income residents in those vacant or underutilized lots?

You know, that’s really hard to say.  Because it’s all part of the process. The planning process would take a development proposal through the public hearings and through the view-assessment ordinance. And it’s at that point at which you would learn of neighborhood concern that allows the residents to have some input and say into what gets built and how it gets built and if there’s anything that can be done to the design to mitigate impacts to views or impacts on the neighborhood.

That’s really the balance that the planning director faces and tries to resolve. How do we take a development proposal through the process and yet, meet the needs and values of the community?

Land is obviously very valuable in Solana Beach. Is it possible to plan for market-rate housing that alleviates the region’s housing affordability issues?

Absolutely. In fact, I think there are only one or two density projects proposed, yet there are more of other projects: some mixed-use projects, market-rate housing projects and a whole lot of improvements to single-family homes in the community that are proposed right now.

Are those easier to get through the process than low-income housing?

I would say a house addition will be easier to get through the process than a new development of multiple units or a mixed-use project.

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