Costa Mesa voters may be asked to decide fate of Measure Y in November

Voters make their way to the Costa Mesa City Hall voting center to cast their votes in the November 2020 election.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Costa Mesa officials have big ideas about addressing the city’s housing needs, chief among them scaling back Measure Y, an initiative that aimed to give voters a say in large-scale development projects but has so far halted them altogether.

The City Council, in its next regular meeting Tuesday, will consider a ballot measure to go before voters in November, potentially exempting building proposals that offer affordable housing or help the city meet state housing goals from the mandates of the local law.

“I’m really looking forward to presenting to the council next week the details of this and having a robust community conversation about the ballot initiative,” Councilman Jeff Harlan this week during a study session on housing.

Passed in 2016, Measure Y lets voters decide the fate of plans that both require a change in land use — such as amendments to the city’s general plan, zoning code or certain specific plans and overlay zones — and present a scale or impact beyond what’s allowed for in those plans.

Supporters of that measure intended to stop pro-development city officials from backing projects that negatively affected residents and put the power back in the hands of the people. The initiative won 68.39% approval.

But during Tuesday’s study session the City Council presented a different picture of Measure Y and its cost to the city six years in, describing it as an impediment to meeting state-mandated housing targets.

Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Marr explained how the measure and the hurdles it places before builders has halted developments that might have helped increase Costa Mesa’s housing stock and improved city corridors.

“You need only to drive down Harbor Boulevard or Newport Boulevard to recognize something’s not working there … that we haven’t seen much built or turned over in the last couple of years,” she said. “We have school buses that pull up to our motels and have dozens of kids get on because it’s housing of last resort. We can do better.”

The citywide need for more and cheaper housing is clear. About 47% of all residents have low, very low or extremely low incomes, city figures indicate. One-third of homeowners and half of all renters spend 30% or more of their income on housing, and rental prices increased from 11% to 23% in the past year alone.

In its initial review of Costa Mesa’s draft housing element, the state Department of Housing and Community Development specifically singled out Measure Y as a “constraint on development that conflicts with state requirements.”

With a 6-1 vote, the One Metro West project moves on to the Costa Mesa City Council, where it is tentatively scheduled to be heard starting on June 2.

Residents Tuesday shared stories of adults living with parents in order to stay in Costa Mesa and young families migrating to more affordable towns. Many said loosening or eliminating Measure Y could change that.

“I was too young for a Measure Y vote, and now I can see it’s going to affect my ability to live in the community where I graduated from college,” said David Martinez. “We need more housing — that much is so obvious. And the state has said Measure Y conflicts with that need.”

A contingent of Measure Y supporters, including former City Councilwoman Sandy Genis, criticized city leaders for not being more transparent about what’s being proposed for the November ballot.

“You have a moral imperative to be open and transparent, and I suggest you do that right now and tell us exactly what you’re thinking of doing,” Genis said via Zoom. “Do you want to eliminate it? Do you have specific changes? My guess is you already kind of know what you’re going to do.”

Council members said they would share the ballot language at Tuesday’s council meeting and work with residents to develop a plan through consensus.

“I get why we have Measure Y,” said Mayor John Stephens. “I understand it was done by people of good faith with good intention. But we need to get back to planning and developing the city in a way that addresses our concerns now and in the future.”

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