Del Mar Mesa park named after Elizabeth Rabbitt, board upset they were left out of naming process

Elizabeth Rabbitt on the site of the new Del Mar Mesa park that will be named in her honor.
(John Clark)

Del Mar Mesa’s long-awaited new park has officially been named Elizabeth S. Rabbitt Neighborhood Park, in honor of a longtime resident of the Mesa.

The 3.7-acre park is located at the end of Del Mar Mesa Road, near the intersection of Duck Pond Lane and Del Vino Court. Expected to open in January 2018, the park will feature a multi-purpose turf field, basketball court, children’s play areas, walkways, landscaping, picnic facilities, shade structures, comfort station, horse corral and accommodations for equestrians using the Del Mar Mesa trail system.

The park broke ground with a ceremony last August — Rabbitt was in attendance atop her horse Sherman.

The effort to name the park was initiated by Dan O’Rourke, a neighbor and friend of Rabbitt’s since he moved to the Mesa in 2002.

Rabbitt is the former CEO of Sharp Medical Group and is known as one of the early pioneers of the Del Mar Mesa community. When she first moved to Del Mar Mesa in 1995, there were just six homes with dirt roads. Prior to development, she hauled in her own water and hauled out her own trash every week.

When development started in 2001, O’Rourke said Rabbitt embraced her new neighbors with open arms. Her farm “Hooterville” became the central point of the community. “We used her house as a park for our kids,” said O’Roarke of the farm home to horses, goats and chickens — not to mention the occasional pink flamingo lawn ornament.

“Elizabeth is one of the most caring and generous people I have ever met,” said Shelley Aberle, a 12-year resident of Del Mar Mesa. “Not a day goes by that she isn’t trying to make Del Mar Mesa a more beautiful and special neighborhood.”

Rabbitt is the one called upon to deal with rattlesnakes and gophers in yards and Aberle said she is always clearing trash from the trails and is often seen riding her tractor making sure the trails are draining properly after a rain storm.

“Elizabeth epitomizes the meaning of living on the Mesa,” O’Rourke said. “Her love of family, animals and preservation of this beautiful area many now call home is central to her way of life.”

Neighbors posted a petition with photos of Rabbitt at the park site and online.

While no one has a bad word to say about Rabbitt, Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board members were caught off-guard last month when they found out that the park had been officially named without their involvement.

At the planning group’s Oct. 12 meeting, Chair Gary Levitt said that it was “inappropriate” to single out any one person for the park to be named after when so many have contributed to a “gigantic planning effort” for Del Mar Mesa community and the park; thousands of volunteer hours stretching back over 28 years.

He said the planning board pushed for the park design in 2004 and when the funding was available in 2008, the board continued pushing the city until it finally broke ground last year. Levitt said he was frustrated that the board was then ignored in the naming process.

“This has split the community over an issue that should’ve brought the community together,” Levitt said.

In a 6-2 vote with two abstentions, including Rabbitt who sits on the board, the board approved sending a letter to the city asking for an investigation into the naming process, including whether there was proper noticing of the city Park and Recreation board meeting. The letter questioned why the group associated with the design, planning and financing was not involved in the process and why the parks department failed to advise that petitioners obtain planning board support.

“I think our neighbors went about it in good faith and I think it’s the city that dropped the ball and did not advise them to get community-wide support,” board member Lisa Ross said.

At a “contentious” Ocean Air Recreation Council meeting in September, Levitt and others objected to the process and naming the park after Rabbitt, however, the council did not take action to place the item on a future agenda.

The Oct. 12 planning board meeting was also stressful and tense, as Rabbitt sat listening to the debate between community members and the board.

One of the first people O’Rourke contacted about his proposal to name the park after Rabbitt was Levitt — in an October 2016 email.

At the time, Levitt replied back that his impression was that Rabbitt would appreciate the thought but not like the idea and stated that others who played a larger part may have earned the consideration. He suggested that O’Rourke bring his idea before the board.

O’Rourke interpreted that email as the board not being interested in his proposal and so he pursued his efforts through the city Parks and Recreation Department. That process included support from the local rec council (Ocean Air), Community Parks I Area Committee and then to the city Park and Recreation board.

O’Rourke said throughout the process he asked multiple times if he had to go to the planning board and the answer was always no.

“I did not exclude the group in any way. I was simply told it was not part of the process,” O’Rourke said, noting that the planning board had the time to go through the same process to propose a name for the park but never took action.

To gather community support for his proposal, O’Rourke posted a petition on a big piece of plywood in front of the park and posted on Nextdoor.com.

Rabbitt said she was not involved in the effort.

“I was speechless and didn’t know what to think,” Rabbitt said of when she got a call from O’Rourke telling her about his plans. “I was honored and respected by the care of my neighbors, it meant so much to me.”

In January, Rabbitt said board member Lisa Ross asked her to refuse the naming and stop the process but Rabbitt said she felt uncomfortable asking her friends to stop what they had initiated. Rabbitt said she told Ross that she would not object or have her feelings hurt if another name was proposed and selected by the board.

O’Rourke moved on through the process — in November 2016, the Ocean Air Recreation Council voted to recommend approval of the name and the name moved onto the Community Parks I Area Committee in March and then finally to the city Park and Recreation Board for approval.

“I made the incorrect assumption that at some point it would come back to our planning board,” Levitt said.

Levitt said he received no notice of the continuing process or meetings and didn’t find out that the park had been officially named until last month. Those who have been members of the planning board for 20 years, such as Paul Metcalf and James Besemer, also said they never heard anything about the naming effort.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the park last year.

“This is not against Elizabeth,” Levitt said. “Elizabeth is my friend and my neighbor. It’s about the process and the process that has excluded people that have been so involved in this community. It’s not about them wanting their name, it’s about them being asked their opinion and given a chance to give an option and I am upset about it. I am so frustrated about this experience that I think this is my last meeting as a chair. I’ve sat in this chair for 12 years and eight before that trying to work at creating a community and this is what I get?”

Levitt said he wanted there to be some acknowledgment of community volunteers who helped build Del Mar Mesa, who fought “tooth and nail” to stop developers from filling canyons and for a special community with no streetlights and decomposed granite trails instead of sidewalks, fences with gates in front of every home.

“It was so insulting when one of our neighbors called us an ineffective planning group,” Levitt said.

O’Rourke said no one is discounting the work that the planning board has done for the community and he has also offered to spearhead an effort to honor the committee and other volunteers with plaques at the park.

He said he thinks the Mesa is about more than the fact that they don’t have sidewalks or streetlights —his neighbor Elizabeth, her farm, personality, passion and acceptance of new neighbors is why they chose to honor her and, as far as he knows, he was successful in his efforts. He said the signs for Elizabeth S. Rabbit Community Park are already being made up.

“She’s a fantastic lady, a genuine and loving person. Who is more deserving than her? I haven’t heard a single name,” O’Rourke said. “If there’s an effort to rename the park I’m going to be there to make sure that doesn’t happen.”


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