Del Mar Heights rebuild facing additional delays

Del Mar Union School District administration offices.

Del Mar Union School District administration offices.

(Staff photo)

The Del Mar Union School District is facing potential further delays in the Del Mar Heights rebuild project due to the obstacles of pending litigation by Save the Field and an increased permitting process with the City of San Diego.

The project had already been delayed when the district was told in May that they would need a coastal development permit after being previously told by the city that they would not need one. According to Chris Delehanty, DMUSD director of capital programs, the district immediately submitted its application for an expedited review process.

A 30-day public notice period for the project’s coastal development permit ended on Sept. 4 and the district had been preparing for city staff to make a determination at that time. However, after meeting with the city in late August, the district was informed that due to the lawsuit that has been filed against the district, the city attorney has consulted with city staff and additional city review was added. The city is now proposing that the district comply with a conditional use permit which would require further approval with a hearing officer rather than city staff, adding about 30 days to the review cycle.

“It is clear in the communication that we’re having that consultation with the city attorney was as a result of the lawsuit that was brought against the district,” Delehanty said. “And it was clear that consultation with the city attorney led to staff adding review items and potential permitting requirements that we believe should not be required of the district.”

The district believes they are exempt from local zoning requirements, including conditional use permits as in July, the board approved a resolution rendering the city’s zoning inapplicable to the Del Mar Heights rebuild. Per California Government Code, a school board may take this action for a school site that will be used for classrooms.

The district has also stated that as the site currently operates as an educational facility and the rebuilt school would not intensify the use of the property, it does not need to apply for a conditional use permit.

Delehanty said that district legal counsel is working with the city to iron out the disagreements in the permitting process but stated that they are committed to going through whatever is determined the appropriate review process. If the process of the conditional use permit process continues, the district could be looking at a timeline to be before the city hearing officer on Oct. 7 or Oct. 21.

On the litigation side with Save the Field, a court hearing has been set for Nov. 18.

In the suit, Save the Field alleges that the district’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for the rebuild was flawed, resulting in an “incomplete and inaccurate” environmental review with a mitigated negative declaration (MND). The group has argued that the district must prepare a full environmental impact report that properly describes the rebuild, analyzes its impacts and considers alternatives to reduce those impacts.

Recently the district met with legal representatives of Save the Field for a settlement conference in an attempt to resolve the issue in mediation; DMUSD trustee Doug Rafner was among those who attended.

“It didn’t seem that there was any intent on resolving the issue anytime soon unless some people come to realize that the school will be built at some point in time and that they are depriving students and the community of a beautiful place for students to learn and depleting funds that would be used elsewhere in the district,” Rafner said at the Aug. 26 board meeting. “It seems to me that a few selfish people are really not taking into consideration the needs of the other people in the community. It’s really sad.”

A Save the Field representative said the district is “blaming the city and our community group for the flaws in the process.” The representative, who asked to remain anonymous, said the process was broken from the start with the district not providing enough notification to the neighbors about their initial design meetings last year. The new Heights design was created around the priorities of keeping buildings one-story to preserve ocean views and enhancing the parking lot in an effort to relieve traffic congestion on neighborhood streets and improve emergency vehicle access. Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district worked tirelessly with the community over the course of the last year to refine the design and make compromises: “We want it to be a school that the entire community is proud of,” she said.

Opponents have stated that they are not against the rebuilding the school but that a better plan exists, particularly one that does not give up green space in favor of the parking lot. Save the Field contends that the district continues to say 400 residents participated in the initial design meetings, however, at an October board meeting, it was stated that there were 200 participants, which included district staff.

“This is a very small representation of our community. Once residents found out what was happening and pushed back, the district was only willing to make small changes,” Save the Field stated.

“Unfortunately, the message the district is sending is that it does not care about the community and continues to manipulate information in their favor,” the representative continued. “Who is being selfish here, a community that wants to rebuild the school and save the field or DMUSD who tried to circumvent a Coastal Commission permit and has manipulated the truth since spring of 2019.”

At the Aug. 26 meeting, board members expressed their frustration with the lawsuit and their concerns about how long the rebuild could be further delayed. Prior to the addition of the further city review, the district had hoped to begin demolition this month and construction by November with the new school campus ready to welcome students back by October or November 2021.

“I’m just disappointed in this whole process with the hurdles that people keep trying to throw up here,” DMUSD Clerk Gee Wah Mok said. “This is about kids and building a school for kids… Money is being burned on this, money that can go to other schools in our district as well. This is supposed to be public money that we’re using on children’s education. Instead of that, we’re using it on litigation costs.”