A battle between wealthy Del Mar property owners over a literal line in the sand could go to the ballot box in November.
Serial investor Rick Thompson, who made his fortune founding and growing video game companies, has drafted a citizens initiative that would change the formula used to calculate the maximum total floor area allowed in new beachfront homes.
Thompson, who owns a $22 million home, one of the largest in the city’s beachfront area, says the goal of his initiative is to protect the beach for everyone.
He’s also said the initiative would help avoid “mansionization,” a term often used for building large new homes on small older lots. But his critics say that idea is hypocritical because Thompson’s recently remodeled home is one of the largest mansions on the coast.
Some of his neighbors say he is simply trying to limit the size of a house to be built next to his on a lot that’s been owned by the same family for 90 years.
He’s proposing that instead of using the mean high tide line as one boundary to calculate the maximum size allowed for a new beachfront home, as it was for his more than 7,000-square-foot home, the home-to-lot-size ratio instead should be based on the slightly more inland line that marks the city’s “shoreline protection area.”
Changing the line could reduce the size of his neighbor’s proposed home and make some existing homes “non-conforming,” so that if anything such as a fire, earthquake or flood happened to them, they could never be rebuilt to their present size.
Del Mar residents established the shoreline protection area with the passage of Measure D in 1988. It limits development, vehicular travel and other activities in a north-south strip of sand just above the mean high tide line, but does not prohibit anyone from owning the land.
San Diego County’s smallest city, Del Mar has a population of a little more than 4,000 residents. An initiative needs a minimum of only 309 signatures, or 10 percent of the city’s registered voters, to get on the ballot.
Thompson turned in a petition with 462 signatures to the city clerk on June 25, and this week officials were still working to verify the minimum number of names.
The sand squabble is hardly unusual in Del Mar, where attorneys representing wealthy property owners frequently face off over seawall disputes, land-use policies, dog-leash laws, and who gets free use of the community center.
Thompson is a relative newcomer to Del Mar who bought his six-bedroom Camino del Mar abode in 2012. Some residents say he has widely misrepresented some facts to collect the signatures needed to place his initiative on the ballot. For example, paid solicitors allegedly claimed the initiative was supported by the city attorney and mayor, who are required by law to remain impartial.
Other residents say there’s no need to change the floor-area formula.
“We have lived with the mean high tide (standard) for many years,” longtime beachfront resident Kim Fletcher told the City Council at a meeting Monday, July 2. “I think it would be wise to maintain that.”
The initiative proposed is a “neighbor-versus-neighbor” situation, Fletcher said, adding, “It’s rather self-serving, and it certainly doesn’t serve (other) people who have their homes on the beach.”
Council members said that, even if mistakes were made, the city’s choices are limited. If enough valid signatures were collected, the council must either approve the initiative as written or place it on the ballot.
“In a lot of ways, our hands are tied,” said Councilman Dave Druker. “If there are errors, it still has to go on the ballot.”
The council voted unanimously Monday, July 2, to request an independent objective analysis of the initiative, which delays a decision until the analysis is complete. The council has until Aug. 10 to place the initiative on the November ballot.
Thompson and the owner of the property next to him, Sandra Naftzger, both attended the July 2 meeting with their attorneys.
Thompson asked the city to adopt his initiative, saying it is wrong for the city to use “the sandy beach” in its floor-area calculations, and that the initiative prevents “a taking of public trust lands by beach owners.” His attorney, Taiga Takahashi of the San Diego firm Latham and Watkins, said the initiative “really just makes sure that the (municipal) code is clear to everybody.”
Residents have said at previous public meetings that Thompson is simply trying to preserve the view from his home across the vacant lot next door. He did not return a phone call left Tuesday, July 3, at Menlo Park-based Signia Venture Partners, where he is a partner.
Thompson also is a chairman and co-founder of Idle Games and Dogtime Media, and is a board member of Super Evil Megacorp, a videogame developer.
Naftzger, who lives in the Los Angeles-area community of Pacific Palisades, said she has been negotiating for months with Thompson and his wife, Rhona Thompson, on the design of her new home.
“I spent two years going through various city channels to confirm my buildable lot area, working with the city attorney, city manager, and ultimately the Planning Commission,” Naftzger said in a letter to the council. “I then presented a home that met all city requirements and was well below the maximum size allowed.
“At every step, the Thompsons have strongly opposed my proposed home,” she said. “And at every step, I have tried to respond thoughtfully and make meaningful revisions. I reduced the size of the house and worked directly with Thompson’s architect, making almost every change they asked for.”
She has redesigned the house twice, increased the setbacks, reduced three bedrooms from two stories to one, and moved a guest room, she said.
“While it has been a difficult journey, I am undeterred,” Naftzger said. “My family is perhaps your longest-term beachfront owner, 90 years. Four generations have enjoyed our home at 2902 Ocean Front, now owned by my sister. I co-own my property with my three sons (ages 24, 23, and 20), who spent every summer of their lives on the beach in Del Mar.”
The City Council proposed its own ordinance last month that would have changed the floor-area calculation, then decided to drop the idea.
Lee Andelin, an attorney representing several beachfront property owners, told the council that his clients support the city’s study of the citizens initiative.
“There are a number of procedural and substantive problems with this ballot measure,” Andelin said. “This has nothing to do with protecting the beach.
“It is targeted at a specific project that the proponent wants to stop,” he said. “We do not think it would survive a constitutional challenge and, at best, can expect legal challenges.”
The independent study is expected to be finished as soon as July 16.
-- Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune