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  • Cynthia McDonald

Update from Costa Mesa First - IHO, Cannabis Regulations and FDCSP

Updated: Jan 29

A lot has been happening in Costa Mesa recently! Here’s an update:

INCLUSIONARY HOUSING ORDINANCE (IHO).  The IHO, nearly gutted by the Planning Commission, gained back some of its important components during the City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 16. As pointed out by resident Jay Humphrey, the IHO is missing an essential element – the calculation of the in-lieu fees. Councilmember Jeff Harlan, a friend of real estate developers and investors who takes the libertarian position that all regulations stifle development, tried to shelve the entire plan to give developers time to submit projects before the IHO takes effect. Councilmember Andrea Marr resuscitated the nearly dead IHO so that Staff and the consultant could return with the in-lieu fee numbers. This was a first reading, but when it comes back to the City Council again, expect changes that would make that hearing an additional first reading, requiring at least one more hearing after that. Since the draft IHO seems to change every time we see it, I’m not going to go through the specifics, but you can find them in Sara Cardine’s Daily Pilot article found here:

Councilmember Manuel Chavez seemed confused by what the IHO will accomplish, despite multiple study sessions and Planning Commission hearings. Perhaps it is because he sits next to Councilmember Harlan, but he seems to be greatly influenced by developers who oppose the requirement to build any affordable housing, whether it be for seniors, veterans, the disabled or anyone else on a restricted income, such as many of Mr. Chavez’s constituents. He also said “My residents can’t even navigate rental assistance. I don't know if they can navigate the process to win the lottery to get into the system.” Then he needs to step up to help his residents in that regard or make certain help is given to them.

I previously suggested the Councilmembers read Shane Phillips’ “The Affordable City,” which is around 250 pages of great knowledge about “Strategies for Putting Housing Within Reach.” Mr. Chavez should definitely read it because it would clear up his confusion and answer many of the questions he posed.

In addition, Councilmember Loren Gameros stated he was influenced by the developers in his family. He seemed very concerned that South Coast Plaza (SCP) would be upset because the City might impose an affordability component on any new project (apparently SCP is considering conversion its big parking lots to housing). However, SCP is the applicant of the draft “The Village Santa Ana Specific Plan” that will replace South Coast Village with a mixed-used development that will include affordable housing required under Santa Ana’s 2021 Affordable Housing Opportunity and Creation Ordinance. Why would SCP take offense at our ordinance, when it has no problem complying with Santa Ana’s ordinance requiring any project over five units include an affordable component?  

Councilmember Gameros deserves a prize, perhaps a pair of Zories, for best flip-flop.  He somehow lost his support of using in-lieu fees to fund a new homebuyer assistance program, but he likely wasn’t very serious about it to begin with. From the discussion, it doesn’t seem like the in-lieu fees that go into the City’s housing trust will be spent on a first-time homebuyer assistance program, but rather those funds will go towards helping developers build affordable units.

Local developer George Sakioka offered changes to the alternative compliance procedures because he didn’t want to show proof for requesting a hardship exclusion.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a City Council allow a developer to directly edit a City document before, but the Council just bought what he offered with no question.

I believe the City took the wrong approach in its design of the IHO.  It took the incentive approach, which is to give developers bonuses and options to get them to build a modicum of affordable housing.  The alternate approach is to create a planning-based program that mandates developers include affordable units in any project over a threshold, as most of our neighboring cities do. This mandate or community benefit approach results in a “sharing of the wealth” and avoids the redlining issue that has popped up with the City of Costa Mesa’s approach. The mandate approach has not stopped development in Santa Ana, which now has two large projects on the Costa Mesa border. It is too late to reverse course, but I hope the 2025 City Council revises the IHO to do better.

CANNABIS REGULATIONS.  On Monday, January 22, the Planning Commission voted to send its recommendations for changes to the City’s retail cannabis regulations to the City Council. I previously wrote about those, but when the revised ordinance shows up on the City Council agenda, I’ll remind you again what they are.

FAIRVIEW DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER SPECIFIC PLAN (FDCSP).  Thank you to the residents (around one hundred of you?) for coming to the meeting on Tuesday night! Also in attendance were three City Council members, Arlis Reynolds, Andrea Marr, and Jeff Harlan, along with City Manager Lori Ann Farrell-Harrison and a complement of City Staff. The meeting was conducted by the consultant, Placeworks, who invited its transportation/land use consultant, Gensler, along with a PR representative from the State’s Office of Emergency Services, to present as well.  That’s the good news.

Now for the bad news. You know I didn’t like the so-called vision statement and principles. My better half-joked that they looked like something written by ChatGPT. Well, as it turns out, some of us asked AI websites to write a vision statement for a specific plan and what was generated is remarkably similar to what the consultant presented. In other words, we paid money for an AI app to write a vision statement that could apply to any city.  

Placeworks rushed its presentation to the audience. Some of the slides were only on the screen for a matter of seconds, so the newcomers in the audience didn’t have time to absorb what happened at the last meeting, or valuable information, like our RHNA requirements. What I saw as I looked around the room at the attendees’ faces was a lot of confusion, and their questions reflected that confusion.

The moderator did a poor job of keeping the audience focused on the subject matter of the meeting. Some comments, although interesting, weren’t pertinent, and many questions weren’t focused. The consultant deemed many questions to be premature, and they were. Extra time was given to some attendees so they could speak at length, while those of us who wanted to focus on the content of the vision statement and the principles weren’t given equal treatment.

The moderator clearly doesn’t like me or my pointed questions. One of her assistants passing the microphone in the audience told me that she was following the instructions of the moderator to only give the mic to the people the moderator was allowing to speak. That is not how you engage the public or make them feel that the City cares about their opinions.

I pointed out that the vision statement was written in a tense that is confusing, as if the buildout FDCSP had already occurred. The principles were mostly comprised of the fluff from which sales pitches are made and weren’t reflected in the vision statement.

In the end, there was virtually no discussion of the vision statement and principles that were supposedly the focus of most of the meeting. The question and comment period was cut off to go to a hurried presentation by Gensler about traffic circulation and a market survey of recreational activities. The meeting ended with a meaningless PR presentation by a jolly fellow who reminded me of Chris Farley. He tried to assuage concerns about the Emergency Operations Center but in the end, the public’s distrust on this subject could be summarized by the man who said words to the effect of “I just want to know how we get this project out of Costa Mesa.”

While the consultant and City Staff cleared the room, I approached the moderator, Karen Gulley, to apologize if I had offended her. She immediately tried to tell me that the mission statement is typical of others. I have read many specific plans in my time, including the one that Placeworks recently prepared for SCP’s The Village Santa Ana Specific Plan, which I think is a good developer-focused specific plan. I told her so and she told me “Well, they paid for it.” In other words, the $2+ million the City of Costa Mesa is paying Placeworks isn’t for a good specific plan; it’s for faux community engagement that alienates the public.  

Overall, the evening was just bad Kabuki theatre, where heavily made-up actors danced and sang, but public involvement was disregarded because the outcome was already decided.  

Actor from Kabuki Theatre

The FDCSP will be the biggest change to Costa Mesa many of us will see in our lifetimes. The attitude that quality work in the draft Specific Plan isn’t needed because the end result won’t be seen by the residents until it is too late, is evidence that the City doesn’t want to engage the residents or be transparent. The end work product may not be the quality that the master developer expects, which puts the master developer in control of a revised Specific Plan, with less input from the public. This is a disservice to the residents and the residents-to-be.

What is needed is an advisory committee comprised of a broad section of the community, including residents; stakeholders; business owners; builders and developers (yes, we need their knowledge); advocates for affordable housing, veterans, disabled people, and youth sports; environmental activists, and others. The advisory committee would be charged with drafting the Specific Plan, including the goals and objectives that would become part of the City’s General Plan. The results would be a better Specific Plan that reflects the needs and expectations of current and future residents and informs the master developer of the ultimate results we expect. That is what Sonoma County did for its developmental center specific plan project, with excellent results.

It is disappointing that the City chose to waste the money the State gave it. This was supposed to be visioning, but it is the same crappy public outreach from the Righeimer years. No, it’s worse.  

I urge you to contact the City Council and let them know your concerns.

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