Del Mar puts proposed bluff-top resort on March ballot

The proposed site plan for the Marisol resort, a 17-acre development on a Del Mar coastal bluff near Solana Beach.
The proposed site plan for the Marisol resort, a 17-acre development on a Del Mar coastal bluff near Solana Beach.
(Courtesy rendering

Del Mar voters will decide in March whether Zephyr Partners can build a luxury resort atop 16.5 acres of oceanfront land just north of Dog Beach at the mouth of the San Dieguito River.

The Del Mar City Council voted 3-2 Monday night, Nov. 4, to place the developer’s citizens initiative on the ballot in the state’s primary election rather than wait until November, as many city residents had requested.

Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland and Mayor Dave Druker, who voted no, sided with the residents who said there’s still too little information available about the project. They said waiting until next November would give people more time to learn details on the size, scope and long-term effects of the development.

Others, including Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, countered that Zephyr’s plans have been public for at least two years, and there’s still plenty of time for people to study up by March.

“We are in limbo right now,” Parks said. “You can vote no. If I don’t have enough information, I always vote no.”

Zephyr recently opened an information office on Camino Del Mar to publicize the project, and people can go there to have their questions answered, she said.

Councilman Dwight Worden cast the deciding vote to place the initiative on the March ballot.

“Some people have argued that the turnout might be better in November,” Worden said. “That might be true, but the March election is big and sure to draw a lot of people. We will have a perfectly adequate turnout.”

There is a lot of interest in the development because the site is “by far” the largest piece of land available for development in Del Mar, he said. Also, other important issues will be on the March ballot, and new state legislation will allow people to register to vote at their polling places through election day next year.

“It would be a real disadvantage to the city to wait,” Worden said. “I don’t feel like it’s rushing it.”

Zephyr, an Encinitas-based housing developer, announced in 2017 it was teaming with the Robert Green Company of San Diego to build the resort, with hotel-branded villas, restaurants and walkways on seven privately owned parcels at Del Mar’s coastal border with Solana Beach.

The original plan called for 251 hotel rooms, 76 privately owned villas and thousands of square feet of retail shops and restaurants. In response to widespread public opposition, the developers scaled back the plan to a 65-room hotel, 31 villas, 22 affordable housing units, a restaurant and trails.

In August, Zephyr announced it would use the citizens initiative process in an attempt to have voters approve the specific plan for the resort, called Marisol, and avoid the need for the City Council’s approval. The developer collected enough signatures to require the council to approve the Marisol plan as is, with no changes, or place it on the ballot for the city’s voters to approve. Either way, the specific plan submitted by Zephyr can’t be changed.

The citizens initiative is the same tactic used unsuccessfully in 2016 by Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso in Carlsbad and later that year by the developer Accretive Investments in an attempt to build Lilac Hills, a 1,746-home subdivision proposed for Valley Center.

In Carlsbad, the City Council voted to approve the initiative, a proposal to build a high-end shopping center at the edge of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, without holding an election. However, outraged residents gathered enough signatures to place their own election initiative on the ballot, which defeated the development project.

In the Lilac Hills effort, San Diego County supervisors put the initiative on the ballot and voters rejected it by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent. In both cases, the developers outspent their grassroots opponents by millions of dollars but lost the election.

In Del Mar, one of the most often heard complaints about the Marisol proposal is that the neighboring city of Solana Beach will bear most of the ill effects of the project and see virtually none of the gains. However, Solana Beach residents will not get to vote on the initiative because it’s outside their city limits.

Solana Beach will get none of the transient occupant tax money, estimated at $4.5 million to $8 million annually that will go to Del Mar from the resort. Instead, Solana Beach will bear the additional traffic from the resort, which will have a single entrance from Border Avenue at the boundary of the two cities.

Also, because of the coastal topography, Solana Beach homes that overlook the bluff will be more likely to lose portions of their ocean views to the resort, in a region where ocean views can be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

“This issue is too complex, too important to be rushed,” Solana Beach resident Clay Westling said at Monday’s council meeting.

It would have the tallest buildings in Del Mar, located atop a beachfront bluff, with six times the square footage of the Del Mar Plaza on Camino Del Mar, he said.

“It just deeply saddens me ... to see green space taken away,” said Mary Zobell, a teacher, parent and Del Mar resident since 1966. She said she has always enjoyed going to the city’s preserve at the edge of the bluff, and that she doesn’t want to see it overshadowed by a resort.

Some residents have asked for the developer to erect story poles, which are commonly used in the coastal cities to show the size of a proposed development and how it would affect views. Zephyr Executive Vice President Jim McMenamin said at Monday’s council meeting that it’s too soon to place the story poles.

“We don’t want to appear rigid in our thinking by placing the story poles prematurely,” McMenamin said.

Urging the council to hold the election in March, not November, he said, the environmental documents for the development will be released in December.

“The time is now for the city to seek the voice of its voters and residents,” he said. “This is truly a great opportunity for Del Mar.”

The city’s staff will prepare a resolution and the required documents for the council to approve at an upcoming meeting to place the initiative on the March 3 ballot.

Also Monday, the council accepted what’s called the “9212 report,” a document prepared by city staffers and consultants that examines various aspects of the initiative.

The report found the Marisol initiative “substantially consistent with the Del Mar Community Plan.”

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune