Environmental report released for Del Mar bluff resort

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.

Traffic, ocean views, geologic concerns examined in Marisol proposal


Traffic congestion is the most frequent concern raised about the 17-acre Marisol resort proposed for an ocean bluff at the border of Del Mar and Solana Beach, according to a new environmental report on the project.

The resort’s obstruction of ocean views is another top concern, along with its location at the edge of steep coastal cliffs hammered by the rising sea. Those issues and others, along with possible solutions, are examined in a draft environmental impact report prepared by Helix Environmental Planning, Inc. of La Mesa and released in mid-December.

The specific plan for the resort is the subject of Measure G, which will be on the Del Mar ballot in the March 3 primary election.

Del Mar has posted the 464-page draft environmental impact report, along with a 1,377-page appendix and other related documents, on the city website for public review.

Comments on the report can be submitted to the city through Feb. 3. Details will be presented to the city’s Planning Commission in a public meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 14.

“The key takeaway for us is that ... there are no impacts that we can’t easily mitigate,” said Brad Termini, chief executive officer of Zephyr Partners, one of Marisol’s two developers.

Increased traffic, for example, would be handled by installing more signal lights, turn lanes and other street improvements nearby that would make travel on the access roads “better than today,” Termini said.

Ocean views from nearby public and private property will be protected, and the bluff’s preservation is “a major goal” of the project, the report states.

“We will capture almost 90 percent of the rain and storm water that today flows over the bluff ... and put it into storm drains,” Termini said. “That will go a long way to preserve the bluff and slow down the rate of erosion.”

Not everyone is confident the resort’s downsides can be so easily shaken off.

Traffic signals and turn lanes are not enough to compensate for the increase in vehicles, said Del Mar Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland.

“The people in the beach communities do not want traffic lights,” Gaasterland said. “We are actually trying to minimize the number of stop lights.

“We have this seamless connection of beach cities,” she said. “It’s not just Del Mar that’s going to suffer.”

The bluff-top site has a natural beauty that needs to be protected, said Carla Hayes, a Solana Beach resident who often walks her dogs on the beach at Del Mar.

“Del Mar’s north bluff is particularly fragile, as anyone walking on North Dog Beach can see ... deep sea caves, recent rock falls, deep horizontal cracks in the sandstone,” she said. She suspects the heavy construction work could accelerate erosion.

Hayes and others have asked Del Mar to require the developer to erect “story poles” that would show the outline of the buildings against the sky before they are built. Their request was denied as unnecessary and too early in the process.

“The project looks too dense and tall for the available land,” Hayes said. “Del Mar put in place very strict building ordinances and a rigorous design review process precisely to stop this type of project.”

The proposed Marisol resort would be located on a triangular piece of land just north of Dog Beach in Del Mar.
The proposed Marisol resort would be located on a triangular piece of land just north of Dog Beach in Del Mar.
(Courtesy of Zephyr Partners)

Employees of the project’s two Encinitas-based developers, Zephyr Partners and the Robert Green Company, collected the signatures of enough Del Mar voters to require the citywide election.

Most of the Marisol site is a coastal terrace between 65 feet and 80 feet above sea level. On two sides of the terrace, steep cliffs go down to Del Mar’s Dog Beach at the mouth of the San Dieguito River. The third side of the triangle is the city’s border with Solana Beach.

Between 118 and 182 housing units of various types are allowed in the proposed plan, with a minimum of 65 of those to be hotel rooms.

Most of the rest of the rooms would be in “villas.” A few of the villas would be stand-alone buildings and others would be multi-unit condominiums, time-shares or short-term vacation rentals. There also would be a restaurant, shops, a spa, meeting rooms and an underground parking garage with more than 400 spaces.

“It’s massive,” Gaasterland said. “This thing is enormous.”

Gaasterland called the environmental report “a fuzzy document, based on assumptions and projections.” Also, the report will be modified to reflect additional comments, so the final copy is unlikely to be finished before voters go to the polls in March.

The site is now vacant except for one large, single-family home. At the southern end of the property is a 4-acre preserve owned by the city. The preserve has been open to the public since the 1970s and is accessible by a steep, sandy trail that goes up from the beach to a viewpoint with two benches.

Zephyr emphasizes that the project would provide public access to what’s now gated, private property, because facilities such as the restaurant, spa and trails would be open to anyone daily.

An economic analysis completed for the city by the firm Keyser Marston Associates states that the resort would generate $6 million annually in general fund revenue for the city. That’s compared to $500,000 in revenue if the property were developed under its current zoning, which allows only estate-sized homes.

The project would create 348 jobs and bring new demand for restaurants, retail shopping and service providers in Del Mar and Solana Beach, the economic analysis says.

The ballot argument in favor of the measure is signed by former Del Mar councilman and Mayor Don Mosier along with three other Del Mar residents including Jim Watkins, a local developer who built the L’Auberge Del Mar that opened in 1989.

New stairways and public restrooms would be built to improve beach access, safety and cleanliness, the argument states. And the developer would create an endowment to help pay for sand replenishment on the beach.

Councilman Dave Druker signed the opposing ballot argument, and Gaasterland signed the rebuttal to the supporting argument. Ballot arguments and rebuttals are distributed with the sample ballots mailed to voters.

Former Del Mar Mayor John Weare and former county Supervisor Pam Slater also signed the argument opposing the measure.

It’s unusual to see elected officials get personally involved by advocating for or against a development project.

Druker and Gaasterland said they decided to step up because they believe the developers are trying to circumvent the City Council. They both have said they will excuse themselves from future discussions or votes on the initiative.

“I’m just disappointed in the process,” Druker said.

Voter approval of the ballot initiative would lock in significant aspects of the project such as the size, the layout and the design of the buildings with no input from the City Council.

Also, Druker said, there’s nothing in the initiative that requires the developer to build the proposed mitigation measures such as new traffic signals and turn lanes that are outlined in the environmental report.

“The question is not whether (the environmental effects) are mitigable,” Druker said. Instead, it’s whether anyone can enforce the suggested mitigation.

“The law at this point seems to be that if an initiative passes, the citizens have spoken,” he said. “They have determined what they want the envelope (or basic standards for the development) to be, and they have accepted any environmental consequences.”

The ballot argument against the measure states that the city is being rushed into an election on a project that would allow 46-foot-tall buildings, twice the maximum height now allowed for Del Mar buildings. It also states that the developer-written ballot initiative bypasses the City Council and most city committees by going to voters for approval.

“Severe traffic impacts will increase at an already congested intersection (Camino del Mar and Via de la Valle) and entryway to Del Mar at a time when we face increased development and traffic on all corridors in and out,” the rebuttal states.

Zephyr spent more than $206,000 from Jan. 1, 2018, through Sept. 30 on campaign expenses in support of the initiative, according to financial disclosure statements filed with the city.

City documents show the nonprofit Friends of Del Mar North Bluff had raised about $7,500 through mid-December to oppose the ballot measure, mostly from individual donations of $1,000 each.

In a recent letter to supporters, the Friends said their goal was to raise $20,000 by the end of December.

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