Advisory committee on Del Mar design review process provokes some concerns

Rather than bring people together, a new committee in Del Mar has left the community divided.

Although the city council established the ad-hoc development review process citizens’ advisory committee in response to the community’s concerns about the city’s design review process, the way the committee was appointed has also sparked concerns.

In response, council members are slated to consider whether to make any changes to the committee’s makeup or membership at the next meeting, after the August recess.

The nine-member committee was established in an effort to improve Del Mar’s design review process — a process intended to preserve and protect the community character.

Community members initially expressed their dissatisfaction with the city’s development and design review process in a citizen satisfaction survey conducted Nov. 20 through Jan. 12. Although most of the 450 residents who responded to the questionnaire said they were satisfied with the city, there were three areas that registered the most complaints: roadway maintenance, communication, and the development and design review process.

Acknowledging the community’s concerns, the council in May further opened the review process to the public and established a citizens’ advisory committee. The council made its appointments in June.

The committee consists of: five residents familiar with the city’s design review process and land use regulations; a former Design Review Board member; a former Planning Commission member; a Del Mar property owner who recently processed a design review application, including a Citizens Participation Program; and a professional architect or land use planner who recently represented an applicant through the design review and CPP processes.

The members are Nancy Doyle, Anne Farrell, Harold Feder, John Giebink, John Graybill, Richard Jamison, Kelly Kaplan, Dean Meredith and Art Olson.

“I wanted to participate in the examination of the DRB process, and hopefully, improve it,” said Feder, who serves as the committee’s chair.

“It’s important to everybody in Del Mar. It’s an issue that affects everybody in Del Mar.”

The committee is tasked with identifying concerns related to the community impacts of new and remodeled homes. Members must also define the goal to be achieved in potentially modifying regulations and recommend solutions, including possible amendments to the municipal code and development review procedures.

“I think it’s high time that we review and update it,” said Dolores Davies, a 26-year Del Mar resident whose husband, Jamison, is a committee member.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, regardless of what perspective they have, that the process is vague and subjective. The better we can define some of these things and make the process more transparent and less opaque — everybody will feel better about it.”

Residents want to minimize the subjectivity in the discretionary design review process, which is already a divisive issue. Some residents want the design review ordinance to be more restrictive; others want the rules to be more relaxed.

“I was on the board when we started to see this uptick in development,” explained Kaplan, who served on the Design Review Board for more than five years and was board chair in her last year. “As the economy has improved, certainly the number of projects and the size of the projects have increased,” which she said, has precipitated matters.

About five months ago, Kaplan said she was approached by a group of neighbors, asking whether she would like to attend informal meetings to discuss the issue. Kaplan declined, and the group, which calls itself “Preserve Del Mar,” proceeded to share its concerns with council members.

Dissatisfied with the process, they favor clearer guidelines that protect the rights of neighbors.

“Some people are assuming that because we’re residents — most of us are residents who have been pushing for this to happen — that we just want to shut down development, that we want to make it even more difficult than they already think it is,” Davies said. “I think this could actually be good for everybody. An architect would hopefully have a lot more information, visuals and feedback to give to a client.”

Former Mayor Dave Druker agreed that changes need to made to the process, and perhaps, to the design review ordinance.

“We need to provide a means for the Design Review Board to ensure that new designs are compatible with the community as a whole, not just the neighborhood,” said Druker, who has lived in Del Mar for nearly 30 years.

“Slowly, a lot of the houses in Del Mar that are being built seem to be oversized and out of character with the rest of the houses in the community,” he added.

On the other side of the issue, another group called “Moving Del Mar Forward” has since formed. Also dissatisfied with the process, they favor clearer guidelines that protect the rights of property owners.

“I think the DRO, the design review ordinance, is a key ordinance for Del Mar,” said Greg Rothnem, who has lived in Del Mar for more than four years. “It effectively shapes what Del Mar’s going to look like.”

Recognizing that neighbors are divided, Rothnem said that the ordinance needs to be reviewed.

“The committee needs to determine if there is a problem with the DRO,” he said. “If there is, in fact, a problem, then come up with some solutions.”

The city received 28 applications for the nine-member committee.

When the council on May 18 approved a resolution to establish the committee, the resolution did not call for interviews.

Interviews were also not mentioned during the motion, which passed 3-0 with Mayor Al Corti and Councilman Don Mosier absent. However, the minutes from the meeting state that the council “directed staff to advertise for candidates for the committee and to schedule interviews for committee appointments.”

“The motion was only to create the committee. It did not direct that interviews be done,” Councilman Dwight Worden said. “So the minutes and the actual motion from the videotape are inconsistent.”

Furthermore, Andrew Potter, the city’s administrative services director, sent a message to committee applicants, recommending that they attend the June 15 meeting and be prepared to be interviewed, Worden said.

Because of the email and the meeting minutes, most of the applicants attended the meeting expecting to be interviewed for the committee. But the council only asked to briefly hear the backgrounds of the three applicants who were professional architects or land use planners.

After the appointments, 25 community members concerned about the selection process submitted speaker slips on the topic the next month during the July 6 council meeting, with 14 members of the public choosing to talk.

Although the speakers asked the council to rescind its appointments, the council stood by its decisions. After the meeting, on July 14, residents upset with the process submitted a letter with 110 signatures to the city, requesting the council to rescind its appointments and redo the selection process.

The signatures were gathered within 36 hours, said Rothnem, adding that an additional 19 signatures in support of the letter were submitted two days later.

“Everybody thought interviews would happen, because that’s the well-established procedure in Del Mar,” said Rothnem, who applied to the committee but wasn’t appointed.

“There were a number of people who the City Council really did not know,” he added. “These were people who stepped up and said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ I think it was a travesty they didn’t get to know those people and understand their perspective.”

Others, however, point out that it is not the council’s practice to interview people for such appointments.

Druker, who served on the council from 1996 to 2008, said the council he sat on changed the way committee members were selected.

“It used to be that we would interview any people for an ad-hoc or a standing committee,” he explained. “DRB members and planning commissioners were interviewed in front of the camera. Everybody else was interviewed off camera.”

Around 1997 or 1998, however, he said the council decided that the council liaisons would make recommendations for committees, excluding the Design Review Board and Planning Commission. Applicants to the Design Review Board and Planning Commission are still interviewed.

“The precedent has consistently been not to interview people,” Druker said.

City staff were contacted to confirm the history of the committee selection process, but they could not be reached for comment.

According to the city’s published standard operating principles for advisory committees and boards, all Del Mar advisory committees and boards will consist of voting members selected by a council majority.

Committee members and board members also must be Del Mar residents, unless otherwise specified. In addition, two council members, as appointed by a council majority, will act as liaisons to the advisory committees and boards.

The standard operating principles, however, do not address whether or not applicants are to be interviewed.

“The written policy guidelines on advisory committees are silent,” Worden said. “They don’t say anything about interviews or no interviews.

“The council’s past practice originally was to do interviews,” he added. “Six or eight years ago — or even longer ago — the council decided to stop doing interviews, finding that they weren’t that helpful. At that time, they decided that they would only do interviews for the Design Review Board and Planning Commission — the two main standing committees.”

But because of the concerns from some about the committee selection process, some council members expected the issue to be on the July 20 agenda. It was not.

“I think it was important to put it on the agenda because 120-some people signed a written request that this topic be on the agenda,” Worden said. “Frankly, I was quite upset at our staff, having received that request from more than 120 people, that they didn’t put it on the agenda.”

Acknowledging the mix-up between the minutes and the motion, the council on July 20 decided to place the issue on the agenda of its next meeting on Sept. 8. At that time, the council will consider whether to change the committee makeup or to augment the committee membership.

“For me, it was appropriate to apologize,” said Worden, who serves as a liaison to the committee, along with Mosier. Mosier could not be reached for comment.

“We mishandled that,” Worden added. “We gave mixed signals, and I can understand how people got confused.”

Kaplan was one of the nine people appointed to the committee. Because she had just served on the Design Review Board, she didn’t expect to be interviewed. However, she was under the impression that other applicants would be interviewed.

“This is an important issue,” Kaplan said. “We need to have voices from all perspectives represented here.

“I’m really the only person on that committee that truly is objective,” she said, noting that she believes all the other committee members have been part of the group Preserve Del Mar. “This was alarming to me, and it was alarming to me more that council voted the way they did.”

In the second round of votes, with three votes from Mosier, Worden and Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, the council selected Farrell as the former Design Review Board member.

As the only applicant who previously served on the Planning Commission, John Giebink was unanimously selected to the committee.

In the second round of votes, with three votes from Mosier, Worden and Parks, the council selected Doyle as the former applicant.

With votes from everyone but Mayor Al Corti, the council selected Meredith as the professional architect.

Finally, in one round, the council selected five citizens-at-large. Feder, Graybill and Jamison received four votes from Councilman Terry Sinnott, Mosier, Parks and Worden. Kaplan received three votes from Corti, Mosier and Sinnott. Olson received three votes from Mosier, Parks and Worden.

Although Worden said he attended the meeting prepared to interview the applicants, the council did not conduct any interviews. Still, he said he “didn’t feel rushed or hurried.”

“I had plenty of time to do my homework to investigate all 28 applicants and check up on them, which I did,” he said. “I came in fully ready to vote for my selections, and if they didn’t make it, vote second or third choices down the line.”

T. Pat Stubbs, who sat on the Design Review Board for more than eight years, said he thought all of the candidates should have been interviewed to “get a fair shot.”

“I was very distressed that we’ve gone to a backroom-politics situation, where a majority of the City Council — without even interviewing the applicants — all voted in a bloc,” said Stubbs, who has lived in Del Mar since 1996.

To date, there have been five committee meetings.

The committee met for the first time at 4 p.m. July 8. After hearing from concerned citizens on July 6, the council suggested the committee change its format and time to be more inviting to the public. The second meeting on July 21 started at 6 p.m. and featured a workshop-style format.

Meetings since then — on Aug. 4, Aug. 18 and Sept. 1 — have all started at 6 p.m. at the City Hall Annex.

“The meetings, I think, have gone pretty well,” Feder said. “They’ve been completely open to the public. They’ve been really transparent. Everybody on the committee, and the people who attend the meetings who aren’t on the committee, have had the opportunity to participate in them.”

People on both sides of the issue, as well as council members who aren’t liaisons, have reportedly attended the meetings, which typically last about 90 minutes.

“My take is, anybody who doesn’t have a huge axe to grind, who’s actually attended the meetings, would have to conclude they’ve been great,” Worden said. “They haven’t been biased or any of the things that people seem worried about.”

Longtime Del Mar resident Bud Emerson said it is a “good group.”

“I have a feeling they’re going to come up with some good stuff — I hope they do,” Emerson said. “But it’s not as though anything has been given away. This group has been given no power.

“It will all be completely transparent,” he added. “Everybody gets to chew on it. No decisions will be made without a majority of the City Council approving it.”

At the committee’s latest meeting on Sept. 1, members of the public were given an opportunity to speak on non-action items during the oral communications portion at the start of the meeting. Later, when Feder initially refused to hear one speaker’s comments regarding an agenda item, Planning Manager Adam Birnbaum reminded him that it is common practice for committees to welcome public comments on each item.

“You go through the agenda, and when you get to an agenda item, you open it up for comment on that agenda item,” Birnbaum said. “That’s the customary practice.”

“Given the circumstances of the controversy of this committee, I think, the better we can keep the workshop format, the better it is for all of us,” Graybill agreed.

The committee approved a work plan that was written by Feder and Jamison, the committee’s vice chair. An alternative plan was also submitted by Kaplan.

Feder and Jamison’s plan, which outlined the committee’s mission, goals, timeline, approach and work program, was approved in a 6-1 vote, with Doyle voting against the plan and Kaplan and Meredith absent from the meeting.

The committee also established five subcommittees that will research and report back on the DRO, CPP, related development ordinances, zoning ordinances and design review board practices in other jurisdictions. In addition, the committee discussed scheduling future meetings with the full Design Review Board, city staff, architects and builders, and members of the general public.

After one resident shared related documents from the city of Santa Barbara and encouraged the committee to review the design guidelines and look to other jurisdictions for ideas, Graybill noted that everyone shares a “common pursuit” in improving the system.

“I want to figure out how we can get neighbors to come together and solve these problems without the animosity,” he said.

The committee meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. in the City Hall Annex. The next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Sept. 15.

Meeting agendas and minutes are available on the city’s website at