Advisory committee hears community concerns on Del Mar design review process

Tasked with deciding whether changes need to be made to Del Mar’s design review process, the ad-hoc development review process citizens’ advisory committee heard concerns from more than three dozen community members during its Nov. 17 workshop.

“I’m happy that you have opened up the process to hear from people from all sides so that we can have a community conversation about this and try to make it work as well as possible so that we get the quality we want and limit the damage to our relationships with one another,” said Bud Emerson, who has lived in Del Mar for 40 years.

The City Council established the nine-member committee in May to address concerns raised by some in the community that a number of recent residential construction projects have had an adverse impact on the city’s character.

The committee’s role is to identify concerns related to the community impacts of new and remodeled homes. Committee members must also identify the goal to be achieved in potentially modifying regulations and recommend solutions, including possible amendments to the municipal code and development review procedures.

“If this committee doesn’t realize that we have a fundamental cultural problem in this community that needs to be addressed and is really, I think, part of the root cause of a lot of issues, then we’re in serious trouble,” said Del Mar resident Greg Rothnem.

The design review process has left the community divided.

Some people want the design review ordinance to be more restrictive; others want the rules to be more relaxed. Therefore, two community advocacy groups have formed.

Concerned about the bulk and mass of residential construction projects, Del Mar Neighborhood Alliance, which has also been called Preserve Del Mar, supports “human-scaled” or smaller developments that align with Del Mar’s Community Plan.

“It really isn’t a village when there’s a lot of really huge houses and not very much space in between,” said Louise Keeling, a longtime Del Mar resident who, along with her late husband Charles David Keeling, helped draft the Community Plan in 1976.

Based on public testimony, people that side with Del Mar Neighborhood Alliance also want increased opportunities for input from neighbors and the general public in the design review process.

“My suggestion is that you search for a solution that allows us to have a good conversation very early in the process,” Emerson said. “Neighbors have rights and applicants have rights. There should be a process where everybody gets to participate in a way that they don’t feel disadvantaged by the other side.”

Beth Levine, who sits on the Design Review Board, believes the nine-member board should only be comprised of Del Mar residents.

“The Del Mar residents are the ones that are familiar with the neighbors and what is compatible with those neighborhoods,” she said. “They’re also the ones that have the direct interest in what’s built and they’re the ones that have to live with the results.”

Former Mayor Dave Druker agreed.

“Ultimately, the DRB is the representative of the community and how the house fits in with the community plan and the community as a whole. The DRB should be using the DRO to be able to measure that,” he said. “It goes back to the roots of democracy, which is ordinary citizens make the best decision.”

The second community advocacy group called Moving Del Mar Forward favors less restrictive rules. Based on public testimony, people that side with the group want to protect property rights and values.

“To restrict people to what they can enjoy on their properties is hard for me to even imagine,” said Del Mar resident and realtor Marti Gellens-Stubbs.

Some architects and realtors said people, particularly young families, are deciding to move to neighboring cities such as Solana Beach and Encinitas rather than go through the Del Mar’s design review process.

Scott Garrett, who moved to Del Mar with his family in 2011, said he plans to expand his home by a few hundred square feet. If the project is denied, his growing family will have to leave Del Mar.

“I’m sure there’s other families like that as well,” he said. “They wont be able to raise a family in this community.”

“We’re living in the 21st century now. This isn’t the 1970s,” added John Schroeder, who has lived in Del Mar since 1979. “I think that for the city of Del Mar to move forward and be prosperous and have all the things we want, we need to make it more inviting for more families to be able to move in here — and they have to have space.”

Longtime Del Mar resident and developer Jim Watkins, who also worked on the Community Plan, said the plan was intended to protect the character of the city’s commercial area, not the residential area. He said the city should instead look to its zoning code, which already controls density, floor area ratio and height limits, among other requirements.

“The existing deign review ordinance is voluminous; it destroys the creativity that is the charm of Del Mar,” Watkins said. “That is why many cities have decided there is no need for a personal residence DRO. All of the issues can be addressed in the zoning code.”

Whether they favor more restrictive or more relaxed rules, people seemed to agree that the design review process requires clearer review criteria and called for a transparent process.

“Whatever the rules are, they have to be more predictable,” said Howard Gad, a Del Mar resident and local developer. “Some things have to be more subjective, other things I think could be codified.”

“People like Howard Gad who build a house to sell are actually protecting people who want to buy in this community and don’t want to go through the hell that they’re put through in designing a home here,” added local architect Kit Leeger, who is also the daughter of Watkins.

“I believe in the adage that good fences make good neighbors, but Del Mar’s DRO has evolved into a divisive, invasive invasion of privacy and property rights.”

After purchasing property in Del Mar, Elizabeth Wilson and her husband, Brian Wilson, recently went though the design review process. They said the subjective standards left some criticizing project details from the proposed height to the grass. Elizabeth said she felt personally attacked and Brian said the process “was a nightmare.”

“I’m hopeful that the committee and the City Council are listening to the many, many people who are standing up to say that the process itself is destructive to our community and needs to change,” Elizabeth Wilson said. “I think the process is an embarrassment and it has a negative impact on neighbor relations that far outweighs the benefits to design in this town.

“We need objective building standards that balance private and public interests applied in a predicable and consistent manner such that the special character of our town can be protected without strong involvement from a design review board or neighbors on a case-by-case basis.”

A total of 39 people addressed the committee, with close to two and a half hours of comments.

The workshop was the last of four intended to gather input from stakeholders in the community, including the Design Review Board, applicants or neighbors who have gone through the process, applicants’ representatives — architects, engineers, contractors and land use planners — and, finally, the general public. City staff also provided input throughout the process.

With the first phase of the process complete, committee members met again on Dec. 1 to discuss rules, work product and assignments for the five subcommittees that will research the design review ordinance, citizens’ participation program, related development ordinances, zoning ordinances and design review board practices in other jurisdictions. The committee is expected to report back to the council quarterly, with the first report on its initial recommendations early next year.