Del Mar puts late-night ordinance on ice

Trying to tackle a decades-old dilemma in Del Mar’s downtown corridor, Del Mar will hold off on a nuisance-based ordinance while the city instead explores the costs of hiring late-night police patrols.

Neighbors to Del Mar’s bar scene downtown have long been infuriated by noise, trash and other unruly nuisances from intoxicated revelers, complaints that the bars’ exasperated owners see as misplaced and overstated. City officials, meanwhile, have felt hamstrung by ill-suited regulations and a lack of manpower to enforce them.

Taking a cue from Encinitas, the Del Mar City Council Sept. 5 took its first look at a so-called “deemed approved ordinance” (DAO) in an effort to address complaints stemming from the three bars that have for decades operated beyond the city’s administrative reach.

The crux of the DAO debate is that the Del Mar code allows alcohol service after 11 p.m. only through a city-administered Conditional Use Permit (CUP). If problems arise, city officials can levy fines and compel the owner into a hearing, using the permit as leverage. But because Jimmy O’s, Bully’s and En Fuego Cantina & Grill predate the city’s code structure, they are grandfathered around the CUP process. The deemed approved ordinance would close that gap by enabling the city to define a new set of nuisance standards and apply them uniformly across all businesses, regardless of grandfathered protections.

Proponents of such measures posit that the ordinances have no impact on businesses with clean records. Encinitas enacted a DAO earlier this year in response to frustrations in its burgeoning downtown corridor. Spurred by Encinitas’ move, Councilmen Dave Druker and Dwight Worden put a DAO on the Sept. 5 agenda in order to gauge whether the council had an appetite for taking it up in earnest.

As downtown’s only bar regularly open past midnight, the focus at the Sept. 5 hearing fell squarely on Jimmy O’s, prompting its owner, Keith Nordling, to issue a wide-ranging defense of the business he’s owned since 1999. Describing an inevitable conflict that arises wherever commercial and residential zones are thrust together, he said a DAO would give his detractors the upper hand in shutting down his business. He also warned that constricting downtown’s already-sparse night life would deal a debilitating blow to Del Mar tourism.

“Some people think Del Mar would be better off without Jimmy O’s. Some people thought the whole country would be better off without alcohol. That’s the way it goes,” he said. “I’m not so sure the council appreciates the gravity of what would happen if late-night activity is eliminated in Del Mar. … Since Jimmy O’s opened, we’ve contributed $258,786.39 plus another $30 or so since you guys started your meeting tonight. Maybe you should think about this before you go down this road and establish ordinances that really don’t need to be. You just need to come to us, we can figure this out.”

Druker, who in 1996 was part of a fruitless effort to induce bar reforms, dismissed the gloomy predictions of a DAO precipitating the demise of downtown.

“Is this going to change the way people think of Del Mar? Most people think Del Mar rolls up its streets at 9 p.m.,” he said. “Is this going to change the vitality of Del Mar? Again, I just don’t see it. It is not an issue of vitality at this point; I think it’s an issue of how our residents are being treated by a small group of people.”

But the council’s other three members were unconvinced.

“This is a big hammer to put on a business community that keeps coming to us and saying ‘Do you understand that we’re under duress?’” said Councilwoman Sherryl Parks. “And I don’t think it’s politically a very wise thing to do. I think a more modest approach than this one is necessary at this time. This is a big reach.”

In the end, the council voted unanimously to explore the costs of hiring late-night patrols and confer with the Del Mar Village Association and the city’s business advisory committee while making clear that a DAO is still on the table.

“We have an obligation as a city to put resources into that area to do the job that we, as a city, should be doing,” said Mayor Terry Sinnott. “Right now we’ve got one deputy; who in the hell knows where he is.”