Del Mar is reimagining Scripps bluff preserve and North Beach

High above the scenic union of San Dieguito River and Pacific Ocean sits an alcove of sage scrub and coastal succulents lined with footpaths and ringed by a low wooden railing along the bluff’s edge. The most extravagant embellishment: a pair of sand-colored stone benches.

The spare outpost overlooking the bustle of North Beach (often referred to as Dog Beach) has gone nearly unaltered since the 1971 resolution that deeded it as a preserve. James G. Scripps and Helen W. Woodward, two of the county’s most prominent philanthropists — and residents of Del Mar’s beach colony — had the year prior come to the bluffs’ rescue after a developer hatched plans to build condos atop the picturesque locale. Through a $250,000 gift from Scripps, the duo struck a deal with Del Mar to split the 8.6 acres roughly in half, declare the western portion a “park preserve” and set the rest aside for Woodward to build herself a home.

Only slight alterations have come in the half-century since. In 1980, Woodward built a chain-link fence to cordon off her new home. Ensuing years brought the footpaths, benches and restoration of its native landscape. In 1987, its name changed from the North Bluffs Preserve to the James G. Scripps Bluff Preserve, in memory of its savior.

But now, a ballyhooed plan to build a 405-room luxury resort to the preserve’s immediate north has unearthed fundamental questions about what to do atop and around the towering wedge of rock and sand.

The blockbuster announcement came in March: a pair of Encinitas-based developers — the Robert Green Company and Zephyr Partners — had orchestrated an ambitious deal to acquire the roughly 15 acres north of the preserve, residentially-zoned land on Solana Beach’s southern edge that has sat idle for decades and closed to the public for a century. Having acquired one of the most coveted pieces of land in the county, Green and Zephyr promptly entered into the years of planning and approvals that lay ahead. In June, Del Mar broke the project into its own “Specific Plan” process in order to streamline the required zoning changes, permits and reviews. Last month, Green and Zephyr unveiled their vision for the project now known as The Del Mar Resort — a mixture of high-end hotel, branded villas, affordable rental housing, a restaurant and a park.

Public access is essential to that vision, anchored by a network of trails tying the resort to the preserve and the beach below. Foot traffic into and through the preserve would increase by several orders of magnitude.

With such radical changes on the horizon, the city is wrestling with how to reimagine the preserve, Dog Beach and two other city-run parcels: a right-of-way along Camino del Mar lined with parking spaces and a 10-foot-wide path along Border Avenue that brings pedestrians to within 20 feet of the bluff.

The 1971 resolution weighed over the council’s Sept. 18 discussion. Among its various prohibitions: restrooms, picnic facilities, playground equipment and “similar installations.”

Consensus came quickly on the preserve’s minimalist intent.

“In looking through the documents, I think we have an obligation at every level — moral, legal, whatever you want to say — to honor the terms upon which that property was acquired, which was a passive reserve,” said Councilman Dwight Worden, Del Mar’s former city attorney. “I would feel very uncomfortable not to honor that.”

But the details of what might qualify as “passive” proved harder to come by, especially in relation to the array of opportunities and obligations that could arise around and below the preserve.

A permanent restroom has long been pondered for North Beach, but that would require state approval. The resort might have space for a restroom, as might the Camino del Mar right-of-way. And wherever the location, the city may be able to persuade the resort to pay for its construction.

Other possible collaborations include badly-needed sand replenishment and a storage facility for resort-goers and city lifeguards.

To bring those ideas together into a conceptual plan, city staff had suggested creating a seven-member steering committee drawn from the city’s other resident committees. Under that process, the steering committee would hold two public workshops before arriving at a suggested plan.

But wary of the city’s reputation for onerous procedures that hampered high-profile projects such as Garden Del Mar and Watermark, the council decided to bypass Del Mar’s usual committee-first approach.

“My real concern is that we create something that is going to throw a monkey-wrench into their schedule,” said Mayor Terry Sinnott. “I do want to get input, I do want to help them plan, I do want to have an integrated benefit to the entire community, but if we do something that is just going to stall things, I think it is a horrible, horrible step.”

Rather than the steering committee, the council will confer with city staff and the resort’s development team to sketch out a conceptual idea for Scripps preserve and North Beach by Dec. 1, then seek community input to nail down the specifics.

Having the concept in place by Dec. 1 means it can be incorporated into the resort’s environmental review, which is set to begin at the end of this year. That will free up the resort to move forward at its own pace, unencumbered by the city’s deliberations over Scripps preserve and North Beach. The city, meanwhile, will be able to take its time gathering community input.

The first — and biggest — hurdle in devising the multi-faceted scheme will be to arrive at a precise definition of “passive.” City staff expects to present the council with a range of options on Nov. 20.

“That is a huge struggle,” said City Manager Scott Huth. “The list of things are pretty narrow that everybody would agree to; it’s just the complexity of us dealing with it.”