Residents question city process for Solana Highlands project

Views of story poles of the proposed Solana Highlands Apartments from project appellant John A. Wilson III’s home
John A. Wilson III

A group of Solana Beach residents is crying foul over a city process for a proposed redevelopment project they have disputed for three years.

Residents near the proposed Solana Highlands Apartments, which was purchased by developer H.G. Fenton Company for redevelopment in 1998, said at a View Assessment Commission (VAC) meeting on Oct. 16 that they never received new plans for the project or opportunities to file new claims after the project was initially denied in 2015.

Back then, 15 people had submitted claims against the project to the VAC. At the recent meeting, however, only one claim was heard, and the project was approved 3 to 2 — with Commissioners Paul Bishop and Pat Coad dissenting — to be sent to the Solana Beach City Council for further evaluation.

Other residents at the meeting, who said they previously submitted claims, complained they were never notified they had to submit a new claim or that a $600 fee for a new claim would be waived.

Dana Flach, a resident on the southwest border of the Turfwood community near the proposed project, was the only former claimant who spoke at the Oct. 16 meeting. She said her 2015 claim — which she said detailed concerns that the plans would allow someone to see into her bedroom from the new complex — was never addressed.

"As far as I was concerned, my view claim is still being upheld because nothing has changed and no one has attempted to contact me about changing anything of my upheld view claim," she said at the meeting. "I think if we had known that we had to refile, there would be 15 people up here again."

In a recent interview, Flach also claimed that no one was able to submit speaker slips after 6 p.m. when the meeting started. She said "several" former claimants were present at the meeting and were vocal from the crowd about never receiving notices from the city.

John La Reia, H.G. Fenton Project manager, said his company has reached out to residents over the last three years and has held "committee meetings" involving the Turfwood community. Flach said she does not believe any such meetings occurred.

View Assessment Commissioner Coad appeared to sympathize with the residents and a possible lack of communication on the city's part. But Joseph Lim, Solana Beach’s community development director, said they had sent out notices and residents had the opportunity to re-submit their claim with no fee.

"But previously, the claims that were filed, those were heard and a decision was made by this committee," Lim said. "That's why we did a new notice as it relates to the new design."

Coad contested that while the original project proposal was denied, the commission had not denied the residents of their claims.

Lim said at the meeting they had sent notices to neighbors within the vicinity of the project. Flach said she did recall receiving a notice in the mail about the changes to the project but could not recall language indicating she had to submit a new claim and that it would not incur an extra fee.

Additionally, Flach said representatives from H.G. Fenton had not reached out to her since 2015 about her claim.

A rendering of the proposed reconstruction of the Solana Highlands Apartments

As currently proposed, the project would demolish an existing 196-unit apartment complex to construct a new residential community with 260 residential units — including 32 senior affordable units — a clubhouse, 525 onsite parking spaces, 233 garages, landscaping, recreational amenities and an open space area on 13.41 acres of land.

Lim said over the last three years, H.G. Fenton has lowered the site's overall grade, increased setbacks and reduced heights. The buildings now on the site are two stories tall, reaching to 25 feet, according to city staff.

La Reia added that some buildings had stories removed, framing "squeezed" or roof shapes changed to lessen the view impacts of the project.

But residents say that work still isn't enough and the developers should also reduce the number of units and parking spaces.

John A. Wilson III, the appellant at the Oct. 16 meeting who also submitted a claim in 2016, shared concerns that the project would block views from his home on South Nardo Avenue, which he bought in 1988. Wilson, who submitted a new claim earlier this year after learning about the new proposal, took particular concern with the project's "Building 13," a three-story building which he said story poles have indicated would block his views of nearby places like the race track and ocean. He wished for a further reduction of height. According to city staff, H.G. Fenton lowered the proposed height of that building by about 9 feet and changed the roof type from pitched to flat to further accommodate a lower height.

Wilson added his views have been "100 percent" blocked for five years because of growing vegetation that has not been addressed, and therefore he believed the impacts to his views could not have been adequately evaluated.

"The applicant has rights to develop their property," he said. "But as a property owner, I have a right to enjoy reasonable views."

He added that an open space easement for the land granted in 1970 should prohibit such a development.

One proponent of the project, Paul McNeil, who also lives on South Nardo Avenue, said he believes the project could improve the area and was an improvement over the existing 1970s structure.

Wilson and Flach each said they understand H.G. Fenton's right to develop the property and aren't opposed to a project, but the one proposed doesn't "fit" in with the community.

"None of us have been opposed to the project," Wilson said. "We were just seeking the right project for our neighborhood."

Flach said she and her neighbors plan to address the city council with concerns over lack of proper communication from the city, as well as possible consequences of the project, such as increased traffic, building size, mass, the number of people and a detrimental effect on the overall quality of life in the area. Flach encouraged the developers to reduce the size of the units or put in fewer units overall to make the project smaller.

"It just doesn't fit into the neighborhood," she said in her interview. "It needs to be the size it is now."

While the majority of the commission found the project entirely in compliance with VAC requirements, Coad and Bishop could not find that the "proposed structure is designed and situated in such a manner as to minimize impairment of views."

"It's not just an inconvenience," Coad said on behalf of the concerned residents. "It's their homes. There's nothing more important to any of us than our homes, and their views are a part of that."