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Solana Beach Residents Want Views to Take Precedent Over State Law

A Solana Beach fight over a view-blocking apartment building has turned up a bigger fight: Residents really aren’t on board state attempts to build more low-income housing, if it’s in their neighborhood.

A Solana Beach fight over a view-blocking apartment building has turned up a bigger fight: Residents really aren’t on board with state attempts to build more low-income housing, if it’s in their neighborhood.

A plan to rebuild the Solana Highlands apartment complex has drawn an unprecedented number of formal complaints that the new, taller building will worsen residents’ views from their homes.

The project will increase the number of homes reserved for low-income families – helping the city comply with state law. But some residents think whatever good that does, it’s coming at their expense.

“The law on the state side should be changed,” said Phil Weber, a local resident who opposes the project because it will change his view. “We understand that California wants to have affordable housing. But is shoehorning these developments into neighborhoods the way to do it?”

The Solana Highlands project is falling in between two complex housing regulations. One is Solana Beach’s law to protect private views, a restriction the city has intentionally left open to wide interpretation. The other is a state law that lets developers build more homes on a property than local restrictions entail, if they agree to include some units for low-income residents.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to make everyone 100 percent happy with this project,” said John LaRaia Sr., development director of H.G. Fenton, during a hearing on the project.

Image courtesy of the city of Solana Beach
Image courtesy of the city of Solana Beach

The existing Solana Highlands complex was built in 1972 and includes 194 apartments. It held 39 of those for low-income families at the time, but the price control on those ran out in 2010; since then, the management company has maintained the lower price, until residents move out. Just 16 still have the lower price.

H.G. Fenton would rebuild the complex with 260 units, including 32 reserved for low-income families. The company would only be able to build 206 units if not for the state law granting them increased development for the low-income units.

Based on the median income in the high-rent Solana Beach area, a family of three would qualify for one of the units if it had an income of $56,800 or below.

The current apartment complex already houses about 4 percent of Solana Beach’s population, and redeveloping it is specifically mentioned in a city document explaining how it will meet a state requirement to provide its fair share of housing for low-income residents.

The apartments will be in two- and three-story buildings, but with garages and rooftops some would reach 68 feet tall – over the 30-foot Solana Beach height limit. The same state law that allows developers to build more units than zoning allows in certain instances also allows it to break certain local restrictions by including low-income housing.

Solana Beach’s view ordinance requires developers to put up poles showing the height of any building over 16 feet tall. Residents can pay $600 to file a claim if they think it will hurt their view. Fifteen residents complained about Solana Highlands, though three have since withdrawn their claims.

But we really aren’t talking about beach views, here.

Most of the claims don’t have anything to do with seeing the ocean. The building would instead change private views of trees, hillsides and the current property, which qualifies as “changed” since it will look different once it’s redeveloped.

“In the current state, my view is a very ‘Solana Beach-esque’ view offering mostly greenery made up of very mature trees to the skyline, interspersed with a modest amount of living space environment of the current apartment buildings and surrounding homes,” wrote Kevan Carman, a resident who submitted a view claim.

Solana Beach doesn’t define what constitutes a “view” in its ordinance. In fact, it specifically leaves it open to the interpretation of a “View Assessment Committee.”

“Oftentimes, no single item, with regard to a home, is more precious to the resident that his/her view,” the city’s 1994 view assessment guidelines toolkit reads. “The view may be panoramic or a slot between two other dwellings. It may look out over the Pacific Ocean, San Elijo Lagoon, San Dieguito River alley, back country, or across a clearing to an attractive neighborhood. It may be a near view – from above or below. No attempt has been made to define a ‘view,’ but the View Assessment Committee will nevertheless form an opinion as to the extent and quality of the ‘visual scene’ that the resident seeks to preserve.”

The View Assessment Commission, composed of seven city residents appointed by the Council, votes on whether view complaints are valid. Their recommendations are sent to Solana Beach’s City Council before it votes on a project.

Of those complaints, Dana Flach’s property is closest to the project. She told the commissioners said she bought her condo more than 20 years ago because of the beautiful views and open space.

“These buildings, as proposed, will tower over me, creating a wall of cement instead of any view I have now,” Flach told commissioners.

In an interview, Flach said she would probably move if the project is approved.

“We all agree something needs to be done,” Flach said. “They have the right to develop their property, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of surrounding homeowners.”

After a two-day hearing at the end of October, the commission voted unanimously against Solana Highlands, saying it impaired multiple views and didn’t fit with the community character.

“Maybe this isn’t going to work,” said Pat Coad, one of the commissioners, during the hearing. “Maybe you need to go back to the drawing board and start over again.”

But to many in Solana Beach, the problem is really the project’s use of the state’s “density bonus” law.

“To me that’s the real story: that the developer can use density bonus to do this kind of thing,” Weber said.

The project’s use of density bonus allows it exemptions to certain city ordinances and limits the power of city bodies like the View Ordinance Commission.

During the hearing, commission members complained that the law meant they couldn’t simply recommend making the project smaller.

“Are you saying then that if we find this development to be too many units, we can’t make that finding at all because it’s already been pre-decided?” Coad asked. “Any builder can come into the community and say, ‘I’m going to make affordable units and I’m going to make this many’ and we have no say whatsoever? That doesn’t sound quite right to me at all.”

Ultimately the committee instead recommended building smaller apartments and adding extra buildings so they would all be two-stories tall. It also suggested the developers build parking underground.

LaRaia said the company was doing all it could.

He said he had changed the plan to deal with some of the view complaints. The company added another two-story building to limit other effects. The company wasn’t even building as many units as it’s entitled to under the law – they could’ve gotten up to 278, he said. And underground parking was too expensive, and the company didn’t want to build smaller units.

He acknowledged that he wasn’t going to make everyone happy.

“I don’t think you’ve made any of them happy,” said Coad.

“We’re doing our best to plan a site that’s difficult to plan,” LaRaia said.

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