Del Mar school district faces lawsuit over environmental review of Heights rebuild

Students on the Del Mar Heights field during a jogathon held earlier this year.
Students on the Del Mar Heights field during a jogathon held earlier this year.
(Karen Billing)

The group Save the Field has filed a petition for a writ of mandate in San Diego County Superior Court against the Del Mar Union School District to revoke the approval of the Del Mar Heights School rebuild, its environmental document and suspend any activity in pursuit of the rebuild.

As of now, the rebuild continues moving forward—Heights teachers and staff have packed up the school and demolition is expected to begin in July. The district is in the process of working with the city on a Coastal Development Permit and at its regular board meeting on June 24, the board is expected to discuss the next steps with contractor Balfour Beatty.

The June 12 filing alleges that the district’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process was “flawed from the beginning, resulting in an incomplete and inaccurate environmental review with a mitigated negative declaration”(MND).

Save the Field alleges that the MND failed to analyze the project’s environmental impacts on air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biological resources, public services and recreation and further fails to address the project’s impacts on wildfire and emergency fire access given the school’s proximity to a “Very High Fire Severity Zone,” as determined by CalFire.

“Despite the significantly expanded footprint, the school’s location in a coastal zone, and the adjacent Torrey Pines State Reserve, the district’s MND concluded that there were no significant—or even potentially significant—environmental impacts as a result of the rebuild project,” the writ states.

The filing states that the district violated CEQA by failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and argues that the district must prepare an EIR that properly describes the rebuild, analyzes its impacts and considers alternatives to reduce those impacts.

Shana Khoury, of Save the Field, is the signatory on the lawsuit. Attorney Rebecca Reed of Procopio did not respond to a request for comment.

The DMUSD board held a special closed session meeting on June 16 to discuss the “significant exposure” to litigation. Before they went into closed session, the board heard almost an hour of public comment. Heights supporters spoke out against the lawsuit’s potential to stall the rebuild and waste taxpayer money, taking funds away from all district students.

“This is not about field dimensions, last-minute environmental concerns or fire safety hazards,” said Julia Hinton, a Heights parent and second grade teacher. “Save the Field is an organization that a small group of individuals started to mask private interests that have nothing to with the school, education or the wellbeing of our students.”

Several parents questioned the “scorch the earth” tactic of a lawsuit that they said would likely not result in any changes to the design.

“I feel incredibly disappointed, saddened and disgusted by the selfish behavior of certain adults in this community,” said parent Jessica Rice. “It is times like these that I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a member of the legal profession. It is insane the amount of time and resources that have been and will be continued to be wasted because of selfishly motivated people who use environmental scare tactics.”

DMUSD Executive Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty said the district was very disappointed that Save the Field filed the lawsuit to stop the rebuild.

He said the district worked very hard to include the community in the process of the redesign. Outreach began in early 2019 and included community sessions that involved over 400 attendees. The design was driven by the goals of removing aging portables, getting cars off of neighborhood streets, improving emergency vehicle access and keeping buildings one-story to lessen the impact on neighborhood views.

Five community design meetings began in spring 2019 and a preliminary design was released in September 2019 followed by two more community sessions. At those sessions, some community members said they were upset by the loss of green space and began asking for more of a balance between instructional space and field space.

A Save the Fields petition (not related to the non-profit) circulated to raise awareness about the rebuild and collected hundreds of signatures in opposition to the design. The community group Play Outside Del Mar questioned the district’s numbers and raised strong concerns that by their estimations the field was shrunk by over 50%, a loss of play space of more than 87,000 square feet to increase parking, buildings and the parking lot queue. An alternative design was also presented by community member Rolf Silbert that preserved field space and everything from the district’s plan by moving the bulk of the parking and queue to Mira Montana Drive.

“The district requested that Baker Nowicki analyze community suggestions which resulted in the plans for the rebuild project being revised three times in response to the comments,” Delehanty said. “Much thought has gone into creating the new campus and it is unfortunate that a small group wants to deprive the parents, students and teachers of this state-of-the-art learning environment.”

The rebuild does result in less playing field space, however, it aims to provide better playgrounds, indoor/outdoor connectivity in the classrooms via green spaces throughout the campus, a new park open during school hours and a walking path along the canyon rim.

While school supporters have been louder over the last few months, opponents such as Del Mar Heights parent Rosanna Alvarado Martin insist that they are not the minority. Martin has long been critical of the district’s design process and pointed out several inconsistencies in the MND document and responses.

“No one has held the district responsible for any of the reasons why there is a challenge to the CEQA,” said Alvarado Martin. “I’m all about rebuilding the school and I’m absolutely disgusted by the current condition that it’s in and that the district allowed students to go there in deplorable conditions.”

Alvarado Martin said if the district is going to spend $56 million on a new school it needs to be done right and in the safest way possible for the surrounding community—she said the district has not agreed to do a timed wildfire evacuation plan and has not acknowledged the effects of increased pollution caused by the rebuild.

“To say that (a lawsuit) is stealing from the children, I agree, nobody wins at this,” Alvarado Martin said. “But the district had a choice to do this project right from the beginning and they chose not to, they chose not to listen to people when they brought these issues up earlier and so now here we are.”

Heights neighbor Kelley Huggett is no longer listed as the CEO of Save the Field and as of June 10 the CEO was listed as Jason Murphy. Huggett said like many others, she remains concerned about the safety and wellbeing of the community and the overall environmental impact of “a new school the size of an industrial Walmart in the middle of our small neighborhood.”

“We love our school district, we love our teachers…We want this to be done in the best way possible. All that we ask is that the district follow the guidelines set forth in our CEQA and Coastal Commission process and laws,” Huggett said. “We know that the school district has the best intentions in mind, however, somewhere along the way this process has been broken.”

At the meeting, several parents told the board they have their support and urged the board not to compromise the approved school design any further.

“Enough is enough,” said Wendy Wardlow, former Del Mar Heights principal. “It’s time for the community to rise up and make sure this rebuild will occur on time and without incurring expenses for heinous lawsuits. Whatever we need to do, we’ll be there. Whatever it takes, we’ll take it on. And we won’t back down.”

The same week that the writ of mandate was filed against DMUSD, Cardiff organization Save the Park and Build the School filed a second lawsuit against the Cardiff School District over its rebuild of Cardiff Elementary School.

The initial 2019 lawsuit over the district’s CEQA process halted construction at the site for three months and was settled for $500,000 in March 2020. Last month, the Cardiff School District reported that the lawsuit caused a financial impact of $4 million in legal fees and increased construction and contract costs in addition to a significant impact on the project scope and timeline—classroom buildings will not be ready in time for students to return this fall as planned. The lawsuit did not change the design, however, one classroom building was tabled due to the construction delay.