Del Mar to tread cautiously on amendment to city charter

Del Mar is moving forward on possible changes to the city charter that would grant greater powers over land-use—albeit tentatively for now, out of concern over the amendment’s demands on city staff at a time when the city is hundreds of hours short of having the manpower to tackle a slew of long-delayed initiatives.

At its first discussion of the charter amendment, the Del Mar City Council on April 2 gave a unanimous go-ahead for city staff to begin work on the proposal ahead of the council’s April 30 discussion of city priorities. At that point, if the council deems the time and effort worthwhile, work will proceed on a timeline for putting the amendment onto this November’s ballot.

When Del Mar incorporated in 1959, it did so under a charter that did not lay claim to the full range of powers available under the state constitution. Instead, the city’s founders focused solely on the ability to impose an admissions tax on events at the fairgrounds—a power the city lost in 2001 after a court challenge from the state agency that runs the fairgrounds, the 22nd District Agricultural Association.

Mayor Dwight Worden and Councilwoman Ellie Haviland are bringing the proposed amendment forward in hopes of bolstering the city’s authority on land use and zoning issues in the face of a growing number of state measures being imposed on cities throughout California, particularly on housing.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it doesn’t exempt us from state law,” Worden said. “... But in some things where we get down to regulatory detail, it might make a difference.”

For example, Del Mar would still have to adhere to state housing mandates, but may hold sway over aspects such as implementing policies on accessory dwelling units. He also pointed to the city’s row with the California Coastal Commission last year over parking meters in North Beach.

“It might give us a little leg up to say, ‘We’re a charter law city and that’s a traditional local control issue that you have to lay your hands off,’” Worden said. “… The state is increasingly asserting jurisdiction over local governments and taking away local authority, so everything we can do to maximize local control seems to be a good idea for us.”

California allows two kinds of municipal governments: those that follow “charter law” and those that follow “general law.” General law cities, which make up roughly three-quarters of California’s 480 municipalities, are beholden to all state legislation. Charter law—also known as the “home rule” provision of the state constitution—gives a city “supreme authority” over municipal affairs, essentially allowing a city’s law to supersede a state law on the same topic. That override, however, does not extend to matters of “statewide significance.”

The home rule provision also empowers charter cities to deviate from their own General Plan. Worden and Haviland are drafting the charter amendment so that it specifies that Del Mar will honor that zoning guidance.

The insistence on adhering to the city’s General Plan allayed concerns that had arisen among some residents. Frequent council critic Laura DeMarco, however, remains skeptical, especially over the amendment’s relation to the rezoning needed to make way for two high-stakes development proposals in Del Mar: the Watermark project on Jimmy Durante Boulevard and the luxury resort on the city’s northern bluff. She also worries about a potential conflict of interest if Worden runs for re-election alongside a ballot measure so closely associated with his name.

“The other thing I’m really concerned about is if you think this is a backdoor to try to reinforce the [city’s] interpretation … on the short-term rental issue, to try to strengthen the city’s case, potentially, in court,” she said. “… So why now, what’s the urgency, and what’s the real intent? Because the housing issue has been going on for a long time.”

But because the issue would be settled via referendum, Councilwoman Sherryl Parks is content to let Del Mar voters decide.

“The mere fact that the public can vote on it is enough for me,” she said. “… We’ll try to educate that this is something that will help our little community, little David here versus Goliath. So I’m in favor because the public will make the decision for us.”

Though not required by law, Worden and Haviland want to send the proposal to the city’s planning commission for input before bringing it back to the council for a pair of mandatory public hearings.

All told, the process will require roughly 90 hours of staff time and cost between $8,000 to $12,000 to get onto the November ballot.

That made Deputy Mayor Dave Druker question whether Del Mar would be better off putting those 90 hours toward the city’s other priorities—for example, resolving how to regulate temporary storage bins that have become de facto dumpsters throughout Del Mar neighborhoods.

“I would have that be a much higher priority than this,” Druker said. “… I don’t know what we’re not going to do because we’re going to do this.”

In deference to those concerns, the council reached the compromise of directing city staff to work on the amendment until the council reassesses its status at the end of the month. From there, the city will need to hurry the proposal’s timeline in order to meet the summer deadline for getting the amendment onto the upcoming ballot, all while legislation is pending in Sacramento that would eliminate some of the exemptions charter cities have historically enjoyed.

“I hate to push it down the road to 2020 for fear the state will do something to us between now and then,” Worden said. “… So we will allow staff to start the process, but we’ll have our hand on the plug and if after the 30th we need to, we’ll pull it.”

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