Longtime Del Mar Mesa resident Elizabeth Rabbitt said she can still hardly believe it when she rides her horse past the community park under construction and sees her name. Last year, over 250 of Rabbitt’s neighbors successfully petitioned the San Diego Park and Recreation Department to honor her by naming the long-awaited 3.7-acre park after their neighbor who lives just a quick trot away at her Hooterville ranch.
The park-naming initiative was led by Dan O’Rourke, a Del Mar Mesa resident since 2002. He said Rabbitt is known as one of the “early pioneers” of the Mesa when she moved there in 1995 with just six other homes and dirt roads. When development started in 2001, O’Rourke said Rabbitt embraced her new neighbors with open arms and Hooterville became a central point of the some 500-home community.
Rabbitt is the one the community sees every day, helping with chicken and horse manure, the go-to for emergencies such as rattlesnakes in the yard or smaller tasks like when a dog’s nails need clipping. She lends her tractor to haul gravel, last week consulted with a neighbor on their garden and allows local kids to come riding in her horse ring on the weekends.
Although the name is already in stone, on a plaque embedded into a park entry marker, it remains a source of controversy.
Former Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board Chair Gary Levitt has petitioned the local Ocean Air Park and Recreation Committee and the San Diego Park and Recreation Department Community Parks 1 Division Area Committee to rename the park Del Mar Mesa Neighborhood Park rather than Elizabeth Rabbit Neighborhood Park.
“It’s been pretty upsetting to me, that what started out as such a nice gesture by my neighbors has become so controversial,” Rabbitt said. “I hate conflict…I get upset when people are upset because my whole thing is about making people happy and helping out the neighborhood.”
Levitt resigned from the planning board in November after serving 12 years as its chair as he has been so discouraged that the board was left out of the naming process. He said it was unacceptable for the board to be excluded after all the “thousands” of volunteer hours working to keep Del Mar Mesa uniquely rural without streetlights and trails instead of sidewalks, and pushing for the park design way back in 2004 and every year since funding was available in 2009 — pushing until it finally broke ground in 2016 but still has yet to open. While the sign on the fenced park still projects a “summer 2017” opening it is looking more like 2018 spring.
So far Levitt’s efforts to rename the park have been unsuccessful. At the October 2017 Ocean Air Recreation Council meeting, there was a motion to not approve the renaming but there was no second and no action was taken. At the area committee meeting on Jan. 3, the committee voted 7-0 with six abstentions to deny Levitt’s request.
“What’s taking place in our community has torn our community apart and it’s just wrong,” Levitt said.
Levitt said he knows that the issue seems “silly” in the grand scheme of the park and recreation committee’s business, but he said, as he’s told his children, you have to stand up against things that you believe are wrong. He said he believes that the park naming was done in a “deceitful” way, that the planning board was intentionally excluded from the process. He admitted that his stand has not made him exactly popular in the neighborhood.
“Nobody is disputing that Elizabeth Rabbitt isn’t a wonderful person and a wonderful neighbor,” Levitt said. “But to take a city asset and name it (without board input), it doesn’t make any sense to me….We weren’t given the respect to ask our opinion.”
“Somebody screwed up,” said 14-year resident Del Mar Mesa resident Preston Drake. “I feel that the city is ultimately responsible for notifying residents and the planning board that represents us and they weren’t notified.”
At the Jan. 3 meeting, O’Rourke responded to Levitt’s claims: “This is the worst case of sour grapes I’ve heard in my adult life.”
.A committee member asked O’Rourke to adjust his tone and requested that he address the committee rather than Levitt.
“I’m sorry, I’m riled up because this is personal for me,” O’Rourke said, arguing that he didn’t go behind anyone’s back. “The bottom line is we went through the legal process.”
Guided by Park and Recreation district manager Mike Rodrigues, O’Rourke said he followed every step of the naming process, which included support from the local recreation council (Ocean Air), Community Parks Area 1 Committee and the city Park and Recreation Board. At no time was he told he had to go the planning board and he said he did not purposefully exclude them.
Rodrigues confirmed that nowhere in the city policy does it say procedurally that the planning board should be notified. The committee meeting agendas, posted 72-hours beforehand, served as official notice. Levitt said he received a response from Park and Recreation Director Herman Parker that stated while the committee meetings were properly noticed in accordance with the Brown Act, he wrote he “regretted” that the planning board wasn’t noticed at that time.
Angel Castro, San Diego Park and Recreation area II manager, said at the meeting that she never even knew the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board existed; not until they lodged their complaint about the naming process in October 2017.
While some on the Del Mar Mesa board said they were not aware of the park naming process, five of its members actually signed the petition. To demonstrate widespread community support, O’Rourke posted the petition online and on a big piece of plywood in front of the park and on Nextdoor.com. He said he walked the neighborhood to spread the word and gathered over 250 signatures.
Kenneth Rudy, a 10-year resident on the Mesa, said he believes that the opposition to the naming is a very small group.
“Everyone I’ve talked to on this issue is so overwhelmingly supportive,” Rudy said. “I think it feels disingenuous to have the other party suggest this is a divisive issue in our community…you can stop the divisiveness by stopping these unnecessary actions.”
In an interview last week, Rabbitt, the former CEO of Sharp Medical Group and current secretary on the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board, said she was touched by the gesture from her neighbors when they first approached her. She said they talked her into it and she feels there’s no way she could have stopped it, even when asked by board member Lisa Ross to refuse the naming in January 2017.
Rabbitt said she told Ross that she would not object or have her feelings hurt if another name was proposed and selected by the board. She said she, too, was surprised that the naming never made it to a planning board agenda and she said she always believed that Levitt would come up with an alternate name for approval.
“I keep hearing that I could’ve fixed it by refusing the name. Fixed what? All it would do is destroy my relationship with my neighbors and make a couple people happy. It almost feels like now any name would be acceptable…except Elizabeth Rabbitt,” Rabbitt said. “I couldn’t fix the neighborhood. The idea that I could’ve fixed it by simply refusing the name is absurd.”
“I embraced the feeling of love and respect that I was getting from my neighbors. What meant the most to me was that they thought that much about me. I’m to tears that they have thought that much of me.”
Rabbitt believes there could have been an effort back when it all started in October of 2016, when O’Rourke first told Levitt about his plans. She said perhaps the parties could’ve gotten together and it could be explained about the planning board’s efforts and the thousands of hours spent on planning and that was another route to take regarding the name.Rabbitt said she thinks her neighbors could’ve been convinced but when the two sides finally did come together at a contentious Ocean Air Rec Council meeting last September, it was too late, the atmosphere was all accusatory, agitation and anger.
“That’s what I’m sorry about. I hate people’s feelings being hurt and I hate most being the blame for hurt feelings,” Rabbitt said.
For now, the name is in stone and O’Rourke said kids have already taken to calling it Rabbitt Park. Levitt said he plans to continue in his efforts and make his appeal to the third and final group, the San Diego City Park and Recreation Board in the coming months.
Rabbitt said she hopes that the issue will calm down and that the community will be able to come together and enjoy the beautiful park when the fences finally come down and the sod finally takes root.