Ocean-view dispute in Del Mar leads to lawsuit

In the 15 years since Del Mar enacted its ordinance on scenic views, residents in the Del Mar Woods condo community have lodged dozens of complaints over the eucalyptus trees and assorted shrubbery that enclose a 5.8-acre homestead on Del Mar’s southern bluff.

Descendants of Ralph and Marion Staver — who established the idyllic compound at 110 Stratford Court more than 50 years ago — have painstakingly trudged through those periodic complaints, arriving at various agreements that include trimming back the vegetation twice a year.

A lone holdout: Sherli Weiss, who moved into her condo at the beginning of 2015 and initiated a complaint of her own in August 2016, saying that the twice-a-year trimming hasn’t adequately tamed the fast-growing vegetation that quickly blots out the whitewater views through her living room window. She wants the property line to be trimmed four times a year — at her own expense — but the Stavers have demurred.

So now, after being denied by a 3-2 ruling from the city planning commission that was upheld when the city council deadlocked on her appeal in July, Weiss is petitioning the state courts to get her view back.

Her lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court on Sept. 19, accuses Del Mar of failing to uphold its scenic views ordinance by basing its decision on her view after the trees are trimmed rather than when she bought the property. She wants the court to force the city to re-hear her dispute with the Staver family or to craft a new agreement on the tree-trimming.

“They didn’t buy an island. They bought a property in Del Mar,” she told the city council at her July 17 hearing. “Del Mar passed an ordinance: no scenic view monopolies for the people who are lucky enough to have a direct ocean view. Give the rest of us something. … I’m just asking you to protect what I had when I purchased — not create a new view — [and] protect it so that I have it a little bit more of the year than every six months.”

Attorneys for the City of Del Mar and Torrey Pacific Development Co.— an LLC through which the Staver family manages the property — did not respond for comment by press time.

The dispute traces back to 2002, when Del Mar enacted its scenic view ordinance. Within a year, owners in Del Mar Woods had filed complaints against the Staver family. When the complaints reached the city planning commission, Don Countryman — who represented the Stavers but is now on the planning commission — worked out a compromise in which the Stavers would remove some of the 40-foot trees and agree to regular trimming.

A new wave of complaints came in 2013, all but seven of which were resolved within a few years. In November 2016, the city planning commission ruled that the view of four of those seven owners —including Weiss’s next-door neighbor — had been unreasonably obstructed by the Stavers’ trees. Those disputes were settled a month later in a resolution that the city established on the condition that all parties drop their appeals.

Weiss’s complaint wasn’t part of that arrangement. When her case reached the planning commission in April 2017, commissioners denied her complaint 3-2, with Countryman among the no votes. Weiss appealed to the city council, which examined the case from scratch in a 90-minute hearing that raised thorny questions over how Del Mar applies its view ordinance.

At that hearing, Christopher Garrett, an attorney for the Stavers, argued that Del Mar’s view ordinance requires the city to base its rulings on views and vegetation heights at the time of a hearing, not when the property is purchased. He also staked that Weiss’s demands would upend the December 2016 resolution.

“That decision is binding,” Garrett said. “If you’re going to reopen that and come up with a conflicting decision … it’s unfair to us because we gave up [our] appeal to agree to that 20-feet height.”

When the city council bogged down into a 2-2 tie — with Mayor Terry Sinnott recused because he lives nearby — that left the planning commission’s decision in effect.

Weiss believes the 2016 resolution is flawed in that it expressly allows her view and that of her neighbor (who was part of the agreement) to be obstructed. While the other complaints had focused on the height of several blue gum eucalyptus trees, her gripe is primarily with the width and rapid growth of the lesser vegetation underneath, including melaleuca trees and fern pines. When Weiss moved into her condo, the Stavers kept that vegetation just above the property’s 6-foot-tall fence, she said. But the city’s 2016 resolution dictated that the vegetation be allowed to grow up to 20 feet.

“All I want them to do is to enforce the ordinance,” Weiss said in an interview. “It’s very frustrating to have them come up with these different views on the same ordinance.”

Del Mar and Torrey Pacific had not filed responses to Weiss’s lawsuit as of Tuesday, Oct. 3. Despite the protracted impasse, Weiss hasn’t ruled out the possibility of reaching a settlement.

“There’s always hope, but right now I look out my window and it just makes me want to cry,” she said. “My beautiful whitewater view is totally blocked.”