ENCINITAS — After three bitterly contested elections and more than a decade of effort, Encinitas and its three north coastal neighbors officially shook off the shackles of county government Wednesday and began life anew as one city.
The formal birth of the 26-square-mile City of Encinitas was an event many residents had waited years to witness, but City Council members wasted little time savoring the occasion.
Just minutes after taking the oath of office and exchanging congratulatory handshakes, Marjorie Gaines, Gerald Steel, Anne Omsted, Greg Luke and Rick Shea attacked the issue that many have credited with propelling incorporation to victory at the polls in June: Growth.
Declaring that the pace of development in the area is too rapid and has outpaced the ability to provide public services, council members approved a sweeping building moratorium blocking all projects except single-family homes, schools and the remodeling of existing dwellings.
The moratorium, approved on a unanimous vote after a four-hour public hearing, will remain in effect until the city develops a design review system and establishes appropriate fees for parks, traffic and schools. That is expected to take about four months, but additional exemptions from the moratorium may be granted sooner, council members said.
In addition to the moratorium, the council revoked project approvals formerly granted by the county to developers who have not yet obtained building permits. Those developers will be required to resubmit applications for review by the City Council when the moratorium expires.
"It's a real balancing act," Councilman Steel said of the decision to impose a moratorium. "We're dealing with people who sometimes put their entire life savings into a project . . . but also with the rest of the community, which has to live with the consequences of development. I think we've got a fair compromise here."
Many of the scores of residents who addressed the council Wednesday echoed that view, expressing support for the ban and urging officials to take an immediate stand on growth, which most agree is the issue of the day throughout North County.
"You are now empowered to make changes, and a moratorium is the only real way to make those changes," said Garth Murphy, an Encinitas resident for 26 years. "You've got the tiger by the tail. Now twist it."
But others, most of them developers with projects planned or in the works, criticized the construction ban. One Encinitas resident, an attorney representing a local builder, called the moratorium "punitive" and "overly broad." He compared the council's approach to "using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat."
Still others assured the council that they supported some sort of building slowdown but argued that their particular project deserved an exemption.
"Like everyone, I notice that our streets have more traffic, and I don't like it," said Encinitas resident Ron Grimes. "But I'm proposing two homes on 2.1 acres and I've had no neighborhood opposition. Why hold me up?"
While the council was sensitive to such concerns--and, indeed, passed a moratorium that allows for some exemptions--there was little question that members would adopt a building ban of some sort. After all, it was growth and its effects--on traffic, schools and the overall character of the San Dieguito area--that fueled the incorporation drive.
Cityhood proponents began tooting the horn for home rule back in the early 1970s, and finally brought a proposal before voters in 1974. It failed, miserably. In 1982, the incorporation bandwagon got rolling again. But again voters, wary of change, rejected the idea.
This time around, however, the cityhood fight was different. The high-density development approved by county supervisors and its consequences had become more visible, and incorporation champions exploited the growth issue effectively during a well-orchestrated campaign.
On June 3, the effort paid off. Voters overwhelmingly declared their support for home rule, and Cardiff, Olivenhain, Encinitas and Leucadia merged as a city of 44,000. The city's name, Encinitas, was selected by voters from a field of three choices.
(That same day, Solana Beach realized its quest for incorporation as well. The council there has been doing business officially since July 1. It also has adopted a building moratorium.)
Since June, Encinitas officials have been meeting informally, learning the ropes of city government and getting accustomed to their roles as public servants. It has been a frustrating time, council members said, because they have been forced to sit idle and powerless while controversial projects have won county approval.
Indeed, according to the county Planning Department, building permits for 1,394 units within the city limits were issued by the county between Jan. 1 and Sept. 9. In June alone, building permits for 319 dwelling units were issued, according to Bill Weedman, interim planning director in Encinitas.