Pending ordinance to restrict ground-level uses downtown
By Halie Johnson and Laura Petersen
The temporary ordinance to limit ground-floor commercial spaces along Camino del Mar and 15th Street to retail and restaurant is on its way to becoming permanent.
The City Council on Jan. 20 introduced a zoning amendment to require street-frontage spaces be used for restaurant, retail, personal services or cultural activities. The ordinance will be refined and brought back for adoption Feb. 2.
An urgency ordinance banning new office tenants, adopted in 2007 and extended twice, will expire in
March, with no possibility for extension.
Council members said they were reluctant to adopt a measure that could create roadblocks for businesses and property owners, but felt an urgency to take action to revitalize the downtown commercial district that has shed retail for office space in recent years.
"What I'm not in favor of is doing nothing; I think that is cowardly," Deputy Mayor Richard Earnest said. "I don't want to sit here and just watch the town die."
The proposed ordinance will allow existing businesses that do not conform to remain as long as they are not abandoned, enlarged or modified.
The council also extended the proposed time period triggering abandonment status from three to 12 months.
If a property owner is able to find a nonconforming tenant within the 12-month time period, that tenant will be allowed to rent the space. However, once 12 months of vacancy elapse, only conforming uses will be permitted.
Many property and business owners voiced concern about enforcing a strict set of rules that would drive away business during tough economic times.
"I just ask that the council be as flexible as they can, given these are the worst of times," property owner Robert Fields said.
The ordinance provides a process for a property owner to seek relief from the zoning regulations in circumstances where a street-level space is uniquely unsuited for one or more of the allowed uses.
The council also asked language be added to the ordinance that allows them to review a property owner's request for nonconformity on a case-by-case basis.
"I just think we need some flexibility to keep us driving forward toward the goal of getting a critical mass of retail in our downtown area," said Councilman Carl Hilliard, "but at the same time being flexible enough so that we don't create a hardship on the property owners."
Terry Gaastland of the Finance Committee asked that the council not be too lenient with exemptions by allowing the continuance of nonconformity.
"We want to be very careful about sending that message," she said.
Interim Planning Director Brian Mooney said about 47 buildings in downtown Del Mar would be affected by the decision, 25 of which are single-story.
While existing nonconforming businesses will be allowed to stay until they voluntarily vacate, future development codes will likely encourage property owners to come into compliance.
"We won't let them expand their building unless they assure us they are going to put retail on the first floor," Mooney said.