Will Costa Mesans vote to reduce their say on large-scale projects? Officials hope so.

Voters cast their ballot at the Costa Mesa City Hall voting center in 2020.
Voters cast their ballot at the Costa Mesa City Hall voting center in 2020.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Will Costa Mesans vote to relinquish some of their voting power when it comes to approving development projects of a certain scale and entitlement threshold, if the trade-off means potentially addressing a citywide housing crisis?

City officials are hopeful they will do just that.

After hours of discussion and multiple rounds of last-minute edits, the Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday approved ballot language to be put before city’s electorate in November calling for loosening of the citizen-backed Measure Y in certain commercial and industrial corridors in town.

The hope is that by exempting projects, in particular those that offer affordable housing, from full voter approval under Y and accommodating development by allowing land use amendments in nonresidential areas, Costa Mesa might kick-start a housing boom and comply with state housing mandates.

“People are struggling to pay for shelter. I can’t think of a more pressing, existential issue for our community,” said Councilman Jeff Harlan, who serves on a council ad-hoc housing committee that drafted the language. “The status quo just is not working, and we cannot ignore it.”

Members of the Costa Mesa City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Housing state the case for changes to urban planning in their city.

Although draft ballot language was presented during a July 19 council meeting, panelists opted to pause and get more input from residents and experts before voting on the matter.

But on Tuesday, when a last-minute edit from the ad hoc committee incorporating several changes to language provided in the staff report made its way to the dais at the start of the discussion, several residents and even some council members expressed confusion.

“It’s something that’s odd to me, to have staff not analyze things and not present,” said Councilman Don Harper, who in the past has opposed changes to Measure Y. “This is awkward.”

Ad hoc committee members changed the description that will go before voters in the Nov. 8 election, renaming it “An Ordinance to Revitalize Commercial and Industrial Areas and Protect Residential Neighborhoods.”

While several mostly nonresidential corridors in the city were identified for exemption from a Measure Y vote — including Harbor and Newport boulevards, portions of Placentia Avenue and north of the 405 Freeway — council members Tuesday added Bristol Avenue and Baker Street, electing to exclude any single- or multifamily properties inside corridors.

Some opposed the move wholesale, asking why the city did not trust voters to decide for themselves where development is most appropriate, including Robin Leffler, who advocated for Measure Y ahead of its 2016 passage.

“It’s better to get rid of this idea completely and just have good zoning that covers these kinds of things,” she said.

But council members pointed out that, since Measure Y was adopted in 2017, only 184 units of housing have been approved in Costa Mesa, with just eight units in 2019 and six in 2020.

Will Klatte, board chair for the nonprofit Share Our Selves, which operates a clinic and food pantry for residents in need, described how the group planned to move and expand to a site north of the 405 Freeway but was denied after the property owner learned the land use change would trigger a Measure Y vote.

“It killed the deal,” he said. “So, instead of expanded healthcare services, what you got instead was the Paris Baguette Co., which is what is now there. I’m not sure that’s what was intended by Measure Y.”

The council ultimately approved the ballot language 6-1, with Harper opposed. Many shared their thoughts on the last-minute changes and how they hoped to reimagine portions of Costa Mesa.

“It’s a ballot — we’re putting it to the voters. We’re not undermining Measure Y,” said Mayor John Stephens. “Let’s see how the voters vote.”

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