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Costa Mesa commission endorses removing residential development incentive on Harbor and Newport boulevards

A controversial 2-year-old program that opened the door for potential high-density residential development at designated locations along Harbor and Newport boulevards in Costa Mesa moved closer to the waste bin Monday when the city Planning Commission voted to recommend it be eliminated.

The commission’s 3-0 decision sends the issue to the City Council, which will decide whether to officially scuttle the “residential incentive overlay” at a future meeting.

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Commission Chairman Stephan Andranian was absent Monday and Commissioner Jeffrey Harlan recused himself on the matter because he represents a client who owns property in the overlay area.

The overlay, created as part of a 2016 update to the city’s general plan, permits building up to 40 housing units per acre at certain sites on Harbor and Newport that are developed with “marginal commercial uses” such as gas stations, restaurants, auto services and motels, according to a city staff report.

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“When these overlays were adopted by the council, I thought it was bad planning and bad policy — spot zoning at its worst,” said commission Vice Chairman Byron de Arakal. “It doesn’t take into account, contextually, the other land parcels around it.”

The 2016 election, which came after the general plan update, brought a change to the City Council’s membership and, with it, diminished political support for the overlay.

In February this year, Mayor Sandy Genis, Councilwoman Katrina Foley and Councilman John Stephens voted to direct staff to start the process of removing it.

All told, the overlay created the potential for development of up to 1,630 housing units in its boundaries — more than five times as many as existed in 2015, according to a staff report.

Since its establishment, however, “there have been no applications, proposals or discussions with any of the property owners indicating an interest in utilizing the overlay incentive,” the staff report states.

The overlay has been a divisive issue, with critics contending it would allow overly dense residential development at the expense of part of the city’s commercial base, clog already-busy roadways with excessive traffic and overtax existing infrastructure.

Supporters, however, said the overlay could encourage redevelopment of certain properties that have become blighted, outdated or — in the case of some local motels — hotbeds for drug use and other criminal activity.

Advocates of affordable housing, on the other hand, said those motels provide last-resort housing for people who have fallen on hard times or can’t otherwise afford rent in Costa Mesa.

As part of their vote Monday, commissioners asked that the City Council begin the process of creating or updating specific plans that would set a vision for development of Newport and Harbor boulevards south of Wilson Street.

“My desired outcome is to see more quality developments along Newport Boulevard and Harbor Boulevard and less of these developments that are currently concentrations of crime,” said Commissioner Jon Zich. I think we need to do a good plan for these corridors.”

Though she eventually supported the specific plan motion, Commissioner Carla Navarro Woods said she felt it would be better to look at things from a citywide perspective rather than single out certain areas — particularly the portion of Harbor Boulevard in the Westside — for additional planning efforts.

“If we’re going to do some visioning, then it has to be citywide,” she said. “We’re just perpetuating the sort of spot zoning that we’re trying to change right now. It needs to be a holistic plan, done by urban planners.”

While much of the opposition to the overlay has been rooted in concerns about the density it would allow, de Arakal said such objections can only go so far, considering California’s housing problems.

“Costa Mesa cannot forever avoid density,” he said. “The state will mandate it on us if we don’t do anything about it.”

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