Before it has even opened to the public, the new park on Del Mar Mesa is now on its second name. Officially named Elizabeth Rabbitt Neighborhood Park last year as a result of a community-led initiative, the San Diego City Park and Recreation board last week approved an appeal to rename it the Del Mar Mesa Neighborhood Park.
The 3.7-acre park, complete and yet still behind fences until the end of May, currently has a stone marker with a plaque bearing Rabbitt’s name.
The effort to rename the park was led by Gary Levitt, former Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board chair. Levitt said the effort was nothing against Rabbitt personally but he did not believe that city policy was adhered to in the process to rename the park or to gather the necessary community input, particularly from the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board.
“Despite decades of service and dedicated commitment to our community, none of (the board members) were afforded the decency of being able to express an opinion when the parks department processed the name change,” Levitt said.
Levitt unsuccessfully petitioned the local Ocean Air Park and Recreation Committee in October 2017 and the San Diego Park and Recreation Department Community Parks 1 Division Area Committee in January 2018 to rename the park. Levitt was successful in his third and final appeal to the San Diego City Park and Recreation board. On April 19, the board voted 4-3 in favor of his request with two abstentions.
Del Mar Mesa Neighborhood Park is located at the end of Del Mar Mesa Road near the intersection of Duck Pond Lane and Del Vino Court. Neighbors have been anxious for the fences to come down on the park that features a multi-purpose turf field, basketball court, children’s play areas, picnic tables and a feature that is uniquely Del Mar Mesa: a horse corral and accommodations for equestrians accessing the park from the trail system.
The neighbor initiative to name the park for Elizabeth Rabbitt was led by Dan O’Rourke, a Del Mar Mesa resident since 2002. Starting in 2016, he gathered over 300 signatures to honor Rabbitt, one of the “early pioneers” of the Mesa when she moved there in 1995. Her inviting “Hooterville” farm has become a central part of the community and O’Rourke said Rabbitt epitomizes the meaning of living on the Mesa with her love of family, animals and preservation of the environment.
“My loving and generous neighbors were, and are, so kind in their determination to recognize me for what I mean to them in their day-to- day lives here on the mesa. From the time they first convinced me of their rationale and reasoning, I have expressed my appreciation for their efforts, the significance which vastly exceeds the importance of a sign on the park, ” said Elizabeth Rabbitt, who also serves on the planning board. “This is a very special and friendly neighborhood and I am lucky to be surrounded by so much love.”
Guided by Park and Recreation district manager Mike Rodrigues, O’Rourke said he followed every step of the naming process, which included support from the local recreation council (Ocean Air), Community Parks Area 1 Committee and the city Park and Recreation Board. At no time was he told he had to go the planning board and he said he did not purposefully exclude them.
O’Rourke, who was unable to attend the April 19 meeting, said he was disappointed in the board’s decision. He said he is now working with San Diego City Councilmember Barbara Bry’s office to explore his options moving forward.
Neighbor Marie LeRose attended the meeting and spoke on behalf of the neighbors. She said she and many others did not anticipate that the board would flip and had expected that it would uphold the decisions made by the Ocean Air and area boards, based on the fact that the neighbors had followed the appropriate process and that only a few people were in opposition to the Rabbitt name.
“The committee was swayed by louder voices,” LeRose said.
She said it was frustrating that, for 18 months, the neighbors went through the process they were given, got the necessary approvals and the sign placed in stone and then none of it mattered at all.
“I think it’s unfortunate and I don’t think that should be the final decision,” LeRose said.
Levitt resigned from the planning board in November 2017 after serving 12 years as its chair as he was so discouraged that the board was left out of the naming process. He said it was unacceptable for the board to be excluded when so many community members were “deeply involved” in the establishment, acquisition, concept development, design and approval process of the park, starting as early as 2000 and culminating in the park design being approved in 2005.
He said the planning board continued to push to get the park built after the recession ended, long before anyone at the city financing department called to tell them the money was again available, and were the same people who called the city every two to three months to try to understand why it took them so long to start construction and then to build the park, which finally broke ground in 2016.
“Yet not one of those people were ever invited to give an opinion, or even told that this renaming idea was being considered,” Levitt said.
Rodrigues said that nowhere in the city policy does it say procedurally that the planning board should be notified. The committee meeting agendas, posted 72-hours beforehand, served as official notice.
“I do not blame my neighbors for the manner in which they went about this process, as they were following the process as it was explained to them,” Levitt said. “It is the parks department who has most let our community down. They have no excuse for not going out of their way to ensure complete public involvement.”
“It’s a shame for the community that we find ourselves in this situation today. We’ve created animosity between neighbors and I put the blame on the city,” Levitt said. “All I was trying to do was correct a wrong…it’s time to find a way to bring the community together.”
A compromise has been proposed to honor Rabbitt’s contributions to the community by creating The Elizabeth Rabbit Community Garden within the park. Levitt said he supports and encourages the idea for a garden where neighborhood children could be invited to grow flowers and vegetables for neighbors and to offer to local food banks.
For her part, Rabbitt said living on the Mesa is still as much of a dream come true as it was back in 1995 when she was surrounded by just six neighbors and dirt roads.
“I plan to live here until the end and continue to reap the joy and benefits of sharing my animals, produce, gardening advice and even my live animal traps and technical support with my friends,” Rabbitt said. “Our enduring and caring relationships are what really matter.”