Design guidelines aim to bring clarity to Del Mar neighborhoods

In pursuit of harmonious neighborhood aesthetics — and to temper the city’s increasingly acrimonious review process — Del Mar has approved a comprehensive set of design guidelines meant to help applicants, architects and neighbors navigate the city’s process for architectural reviews, both for residential and commercial projects.

The city council approved the guidelines on Monday, Nov. 6 after nearly three hours of public testimony and deliberation.

The 140-page document — which can be viewed at www.delmar.ca.us/DocumentCenter/View/3279 —offers direction on details ranging from tree placement and how to preserve views to window size and outdoor lighting.

The guidelines are not, however, binding. Instead, they are meant to give homeowners, design professionals and the city’s Design Review Board (DRB) clarity on how to interpret Del Mar’s 40-year-old Design Review Ordinance.

An ad hoc committee started working on the guidelines more than two years ago, first by identifying the biggest flaws in the city’s design review process — principally, that the process was too subjective and had therefore become too prone to contention.

Significant pushback emerged as the guidelines were fine-tuned through this summer, with residents and property owners raising a litany of concerns, including how the guidelines define “view obstruction,” limit the size and placement of decks and discourage grading. Perhaps the biggest fear is that the guidelines on building size and massing will homogenize neighborhoods and diminish Del Mar’s eclectic architectural aesthetic.

While councilmembers shared some of those concerns — and debated the extent to which the guidelines will become de facto regulations — they had high praise for the overall results.

“If we waited until everybody in town was happy with this, we’d be debating this for another 10 years,” said Councilman Dwight Worden. “Somewhere in the continuum you have to say it’s good enough and we’re going to keep working on it after adoption.”

Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, who served a four-year term on the DRB before joining the council, sees the guidelines as “a living document” that the city will revisit in the years ahead.

“Change is never easy, even though the addition of the guidelines will change the process for the better,” she said. “… We need to get it implemented, get our DRB trained, and set a time in the future to review and see if it’s working.”

Exactly how and when the guidelines will be incorporated into the city’s review process remains to be seen, but the roll-out is expected to begin by training the DRB at its December meeting.

“It’s a messaging thing,” said City Manager Scott Huth. “It’s going to transition over several months as it gains traction, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

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