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Del Mar

Problems with Del Mar review process identified

More than a year after its creation, an advisory committee presented several problems associated with Del Mar’s development review process to the City Council on July 18.

The council established the nine-member ad-hoc development review process citizens’ advisory committee last 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 is tasked with reviewing procedures and making recommendations to improve Del Mar’s development review process.

In its second quarterly update to the council, the committee presented its “Phase 2 List of Problems and Concerns,” bringing the problem-identification stage of the group’s work to a close.

According to the committee’s report, the group “believes that many of the identified problems stem from a lack of understanding and inadequate education for neighbors, applicants, and DRB members, as well as insufficient transparency and objectivity in the process and ordinances.”

The committee presented five problems related to the effectiveness of the city’s Design Review Board and design review process.

According to the report, the first problem is ensuring that new residential development is similar in mass, bulk and scale to the immediate neighborhood. Specific examples include reducing the effective bulk of hillside development and encouraging the remodeling of existing homes to preserve neighborhood character. Other examples include the lack of zoning design standards that reflect neighborhood diversity and a definition of neighborhood compatibility.

The second problem is retaining and enhancing the open and natural atmosphere of Del Mar. The third problem is the need for “good neighbor” design principles in relationship to adjacent properties. Specific examples include minimizing privacy intrusions on adjacent homes and minimizing impacts from noise and outdoor lighting.

The fourth problem identified by the committee is preserving access to private views. Finally, the committee also said that de novo council hearings for DRB appeals undermine the authority of the Design Review Board.

“I believe that it’s a problem that the council is hearing the appeals from the DRB on a de novo basis, which means that you are retrying the case factually, which I personally think is problematic,” Chairman Harold Feder said. “It’s unlike almost any other appellant process that I know of legally.”

Since its formation, the committee has conducted 20 public meetings, including special workshops with various stakeholder groups, including the Design Review Board, Planning Commission, applicants and neighbors who have participated in the design review process, applicants’ representatives, and other Del Mar residents.

With input from the community, the committee created a preliminary list of problems and presented those concerns to the council in February. At that time, the council directed the committee to recommend potential solutions to the nine problems identified and continue working to complete the list. In June, the council approved some of the recommended solutions, including revisions to the Citizens’ Participation Program.

In a 3-2 vote at the July 18 meeting, the council gave the committee the go-ahead to find potential solutions to the five concerns, as well as an additional problem identified by council members. The council also asked the committee to find solutions to concerns that the entire design review process lacks clarity and is too subjective.

“Get rid of the subjectivity,” said Del Mar resident Greg Rothnem. “That is what the people are saying the problem is — the subjectivity, the lack of standards, the lack of clarity, the lack of guidelines. That’s the problem.”

Divided, Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott and Councilman Al Corti said they did not believe the committee’s report included well-defined problems. Neither supported the group moving forward to identify solutions.

“These are not specified as problems; these are specified as goals,” Sinnott said. “You’ve got to be really, really disciplined as a group to state the problem, as best you can, in a form that then can be analyzed.”

Corti said he did not see any of the committee’s problems as problems in Del Mar’s Design Review Ordinance.

“The DRO has served this community well for 30 years,” he said. “The DRO, from my perspective, gives the DRB and the City Council the ability to enforce and to ensure the community achieves any one of these objectives.

“What’s not clear in the DRO is it’s very subjective,” he added. “I’m looking for objectivity, not implications. That’s part of the problem.”

Disagreeing, Feder said the committee spent a lot of time identifying problems with the process.

“These are problems that have been vetted by this committee not in one meeting — we’ve had months and months of vetting these problems,” Feder said.

Although their colleagues encouraged the group to take another look at problems with the process, Mayor Sherryl Parks and Councilmen Don Mosier and Dwight Worden agreed to allow the committee to move forward and identify potential solutions.

“To go back to the drawing board wouldn’t be productive at all,” Parks said.

“I think the committee’s done a lot of work and has listened to all the community input,” Mosier added. “The goal is to make the process clearer, more predictable and to create more objective standards. I think all the problems here are important.

“I’m happy that we’ve got a set of problems to work on,” he said. “I think they’re broad enough that it encompasses almost everything that we’ve heard from public input. I hope we can focus down on learning what other communities have done and getting into the problem-solving phase because some of these problems might be relatively simple to solve, but I have a feeling some are going to be very difficult to solve.”