Elizabeth Rabbitt Park name upheld by Park and Rec board

It’s official again: the new park in Del Mar Mesa will go back to its original Elizabeth Rabbitt Neighborhood Park name, the San Diego Park and Recreation board decided in a 5-3 vote on June 21.

San Diego Park and Recreation Director Herman Parker said this will be the final naming action for this park.

The park had been named for Del Mar Mesa resident Elizabeth Rabbitt in May 2017 with unanimous approval from the Ocean Air Recreation Council, Community Parks 1 Division Area Committee and the SD Park and Recreation board. Neighbor Dan O’ Rourke led the naming effort, following established policy outlined by city staff, backed by a petition signed by 250 residents.

Former Del Mar Mesa Planning Board Chair Gary Levitt then questioned the process in which the park was named, particularly that the planning board was not given a say in the park that they helped plan. Levitt unsuccessfully appealed to the Ocean Air and area boards to change the name to Del Mar Mesa Neighborhood Park. Ocean Air took no action and the area committee denied his request but then in April, the San Diego Park and Rec board voted in favor of the change with O’Rourke and many supporters not present.

Parker said after the April meeting that the office of the mayor, city council and park and recreation received “significant communication” that public input had not been heard on the park name. Parker drafted a letter to the chair to ask for the name to be reconsidered. O’Rourke and other residents came before the board at the Balboa Park Club Ballroom on June 21 to uphold the Rabbitt park name, with a new petition signed by 600 Del Mar Mesa residents.

“I’m very passionate about the Del Mar Mesa community. I’m also very passionate about Elizabeth and this naming effort,” said O’Rourke, a Mesa resident since 2002. “We followed the rules… I reached out simply because I raised a family in the community without a park. And when the park was finally about to happen, we got together and we wanted to honor the best person in that community that has the widest reach and really cares about everybody: the kids, the families, our animals.”

“She’s our pioneer. Period,” said O’Rourke of Rabbitt. “It’s simply not a knock on all the other folks who were there way before her.”

Twelve-year-old Elle Laikind, who grew up on the Mesa, said for as long as she can remember, Rabbitt’s “fun” and “whimsical” Hooterville property has been the community’s de-facto park.

“When I would walk with my parents or with friends, we didn’t have a park to visit, instead we usually headed to Elizabeth Rabbitt’s home to say hello to the goats, the horses and the donkeys,” Elle said.

Her mother Lisa Stennes-Laikind said the intention behind the park naming was not in any way to diminish the efforts of the planners and developers but rather to honor one who shares “the essence of living on the Mesa.”

She said Rabbitt opened her home and heart to neighbors, taught children about caring for animals, shared her “green thumb goodness” through her harvest bounty, offered pruning and pest advice, welcomed tennis players and “made it possible for so many kids in our neighborhood to foster the love of horses”.

“She offers us all a reminder to take our challenges in stride and remember that humor and creativity go a long way toward creating a happy place on the Mesa,” Stennes-Laikind said.

Those opposed to the name argued that the Rabbitt name is not historically significant, as is required by San Diego Park and Recreation Board naming policy as well as San Diego City Council policy for naming city assets after an individual. Longtime community volunteer Anne Harvey said the Del Mar Mesa Neighborhood Park name is more inclusive, fair and honest.

Levitt said he really tried to find a compromise, such as naming a community garden within the park for Rabbitt. He said he did not want to be in front of the board fighting for this issue, he said it takes too much emotion, has divided the community and even a “victory” would feel hollow.

Jan Hudson, a Mesa resident since 1988 and founding chair of Del Mar Mesa Planning Board, said the effort to advocate and plan the park over the course of the last 14 years was “Herculean” and represented thousands of hours spent by volunteers, Rabbitt not among them.

“Everyone acknowledges that Elizabeth is a colorful and welcoming neighbor but her contribution to the community does not justify our park being named after her. This is not a trivial issue and it’s not a petty one. The name will live in perpetuity,” Hudson said. “Elizabeth is a kind neighbor but she is no community pioneer…the name Del Mar Mesa Neighborhood Park meets the city’s criteria and it is the only true appropriate name for our community’s only park.”

Park and Recreation board member Noli Zosa said it was a “tragedy” that the issue was before them, due to the “flawed” process the city has in naming parks. Per the policy, the advisory body is the local rec council and its meeting serves as the public hearing for park naming.

He said in this case, four people on the Ocean Air Recreation Council decided the park name on behalf of the entire community with two guests in attendance. “I don’t think that constitutes a public hearing,” he said, noting that public notice for those meetings is also “archaic,” consisting of the agenda being posted on the bulletin board at the rec center—most rec councils do not have websites.

Parker said Parks and Rec will be taking a closer look at the naming policy as it relates to park names. He said they will also reconsider their noticing and see if there is a way they can expand their outreach on public hearings.

Longtime Park and Recreation Board member Dave Kenney said usually naming park assets is a “slam dunk” and he had never seen a process like this before.

“I love parks, that’s why I’m on this board. I think it’s so wonderful that a park can actually be used as a way to unite a community and bring it together and this issue has not done that,” Kenney said. “I want to vote for something that’s celebratory and brings a community together and because of the divisive nature, that’s why I won’t be supporting naming the park after her.”

Chair Katherine Johnston agreed that it was disheartening that they were having the discussion that day. She said the controversy highlights a policy issue that has come up repeatedly at the city: how they can encourage better collaboration between planning groups and rec councils. She said she doesn’t believe that park and rec councils should be the only group that weighs in on park projects but under existing policy, the rec council is the prevailing authority so she would be joining her colleagues in support of the Rabbitt name.

“Fortunately, it’s a beautiful park,” said board member Dennis Otsuji. “The park is great. It’s a little flawed in how we got to the naming of it, but hopefully the two sides will get together at the park.”

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