Reversing its earlier opposition, the California Coastal Commission approved a request Friday to permit high-density development of up to 500 housing units in the rural Quail Gardens area of Encinitas.
Amid charges by irate North County residents that the vote was influenced by developers, the 13 commissioners unanimously approved a request by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for amendments to the local coastal plan to increase the maximum allowable density on three sites near Quail Botanical Gardens, an ecological preserve that contains rare local and exotic plant life.
The decision allows construction to begin on a 262-unit apartment project that has been fought bitterly by Encinitas and Leucadia residents, 105 of whom were at Friday's meeting in San Diego.
In December, the commissioners denied an almost identical request from the county, saying they were concerned that traffic from higher-density development would clog Encinitas streets, threatening nearby coastal wetlands. At that time, the county had only performed a preliminary traffic study on the affected areas.
In March, the commission agreed to hear the matter again, after county planning officials said that results of two studies indicated no increase in traffic congestion as a result of the new development.
Those studies--one by county traffic engineers, the other by Urban Systems Inc., an independent consultant--did not sway the opposition, but did convince the commissioners to change their votes Friday.
"I'm not at all sure we made a reversal," Commissioner Donald McInnis said. "Last time, most of the testimony was based on a document that even the county admitted was flawed. As far as I'm concerned, the approval is reflective of the approved county traffic study and the independent study."
But members of the San Dieguito Citizens' Planning Group and others opposed to urbanizing the Quail Gardens area charged that the commissioners had bowed to political pressure brought to bear by influential developers.
"It's obviously (the result of) political promises," said Gerald Steel, member of a planning group that has used dissatisfaction with county land-use decisions to spur a drive to have the Encinitas-Leucadia area incorporated into a new 45-square-mile city of 44,000.
"The people who stand to make tens of millions of dollars from these general-plan amendments have some influence over elected officials," Steel said. "Coastal commissioners are all appointed by people who get elected, and the people who get elected have influence over the people they appoint."
Later in the meeting, while testifying against the specific permit request for the 262-unit Quail Gardens apartment complex, a seething Steel questioned "the morality" of the commissioners' vote on the land use amendments. The implication of impropriety drew an an angry response from the commissioners.
"I have vile objection to the kind of crap being given us by Mr. Steel," McInnis said.
Commission Chairman Michael Wornum suggested that Steel, who is a declared council candidate if the incorporation measure passes June 3, had political motives for making the charge.
"If you want to get elected to your City Council, fine, but you may not impugn the morality of anyone on this commission," Wornum said. "It might have been lack of judgment, but it wasn't lack of morality that was responsible for the commission's decision."
One of the general plan amendments passed Friday increased the maximum-allowable housing units per acre on a 93-acre tract adjacent to Quail Botanical Gardens from 3 units to 29. Higher density also was permitted on "the Perry property," a 10-acre lot near Encinitas Boulevard and El Camino Real, and "the D Street property," an 8.5-acre site west of Interstate 5 and south of Encinitas Boulevard that has been scheduled for a subdivision of 64 single-family homes.
Residents first voiced their opposition when the county supervisors considered the amendments in August, but the plan was overwhelmingly approved.
At Friday's meeting, Supervisor Brian Bilbray expressed the county's view that the Quail Gardens area was an isolated enclave of rural property that should be made consistent with the heavily developed land surrounding it.
"It's a hole in a developed area that needs to be filled in," Bilbray said, adding that opposing residents couldn't "see the forest for the trees."
But since coastal commission planners first received the county's plan last fall, they have sided with residents, arguing that major arterial streets such as Encinitas and Leucadia boulevards would have to be widened to handle the additional traffic, posing a potential environmental hazard.
"Traffic is a problem because of the burgeoning population of North County," said Paul Webb of the coastal commission staff. "Another problem is that many of these roads go across lagoons or areas adjacent to lagoons or coastal wetlands with little or no room for expansion."
But Bill Healy, the county's director of general planning, said the commission's staff over-estimated potential traffic problems. He said any traffic increases "could be accommodated without wetlands encroachment."
At the heart of the dispute between residents and the county are conflicting perceptions of whether the area's rural character can--or should--be preserved.
"It's a sleepy little area that is exactly what people think of when they think of a coastal ambiance," resident Al Rowe said.
Others agree with the county that it is no longer feasible to retain the area's rustic quality in the face of rapid development. About 40 people who own property in the Quail Gardens area expressed their support for the general-plan changes at Friday's meeting.
"Anyone who thinks Encinitas is a sleepy little town dedicated to floriculture hasn't been there lately," property owner Norman Meyer said.
Last recourse for opponents to the decision is to sue the commission for incorrectly interpreting the provisions of the coastal act. Steel said the planning council would consider the legal action, which would include an injunction against further construction on the sites, over the next month.