Del Mar district reviews alternative plan for Heights rebuild

Students on the Del Mar Heights field during the recent jogathon.
(Karen Billing)

Last month, Del Mar resident Rolf Silbert presented an alternative design concept for the Del Mar Heights School rebuild. Silbert’s plan provides a total of 130,400 square feet of field space and preserves everything from the district’s plan but moves the bulk of the parking and drop-off and pick-up queue to Mira Montana Drive above the school.

“My hope is that this design provides the opportunity and vision that our community can work together in collaboration for a design iteration that addresses the developing concerns,” Silbert said.

Per the Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) board’s request, the district staff and architect reviewed Silbert’s plans over the last month. At the Feb. 26 board meeting, DMUSD Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty said they did not recommend moving forward with Silbert’s plan due to lack of on-site parking and queuing, the requirement for large retaining walls in order to get the angled parking along spaces along Mira Montana and concerns about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues around the path of travel from the proposed drop-off area on Mira Montana.

In December, the majority of the board expressed that they were not interested in the aesthetics or cost of large retaining walls against Mira Montana in order to move buildings further to the east to free up more play field.

John Gartman, of Play Outside Del Mar, said that the retaining walls needed to extend the district’s property on Mira Montana to add the parking spaces in Silbert’s design would not be as large as the 22-foot tall ones that were discussed with previous plan iterations.

Gartman said he believes that Silbert’s design is a better and safer plan from the perspectives of field space, fire safety, traffic and air quality. He also countered that the ADA issues are not insurmountable –as resident Rosanna Martin pointed out, the district’s plan already includes a new access ramp from Mira Montana.

“It’s not game over yet,” said Gartman. “The community and the kids deserve better.”

At the Feb. 26 meeting it was revealed that the district received two letters from the Procopio law firm last month, prompting concern from the board that legal action could be taken regarding the rebuild. Procopio is the same law firm that was involved in the lawsuit against Cardiff School District which halted construction of its new school for three months.

During board member comments, DMUSD board member Doug Rafner read a statement that if the district is faced with a lawsuit, he would choose not to defer bond money or general fund money to defend a design that the community doesn’t want.

“I believe the district has created an incredible design and has shown its desire to compromise by consistently revising this plan. If the community wishes to go this direction I will not support forcing the issue as I believe doing so is irresponsible,” Rafner said. “We may be forced to forgo this project entirely and move on to other needed projects.”

The Cardiff lawsuit, filed by the community group Save the Park and Build the School, alleged a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and taxpayer waste of bond funds and centered around the district’s plan to use a portion of its playfields to rebuild the new school. Unlike Del Mar, Cardiff’s playfields are on federally-protected park land—the district has been undergoing the process of getting a boundary adjustment from the National Park Service that would allow them to build on the land. The district had already torn down a portion of the campus and started construction when the lawsuit was filed.

A settlement was reached on Feb. 27 which included a $500,000 payment from the district to the plaintiff. The amount reflects a percentage of the total anticipated cost of this lawsuit to the district, which will also include the cost of the construction delay, repairs to the site due to rain erosion and the district’s legal fees.

According to Delehanty the district received two letters from Procopio, one requesting that they are given notice of any actions taken with the rebuild and CEQA process, and a second making a “lengthy” Public Records Act request for 17 items related to the rebuild and CEQA.

The potential litigation was news to many of the Del Mar residents in attendance at the meeting, but as they reflected in their public comments, it did not come as a surprise.

“The lawsuit is the logical progression for how things have gone,” said Del Mar resident Garrett Anderson. “A lot of people for various reasons haven’t liked the way this process has proceeded.”

Anderson expressed the opinion of many project opponents who believe that the current plan takes up too much field space in order to meet the district’s goals of a single-story campus that preserves neighbor views, provides permanent classroom buildings instead of portables and an expanded parking lot, and queuing area to get cars off of neighborhood streets.

“I think it would be foolish to just take your marbles and go home because Procopio is suing you,” said Anderson. “If you just quit on the program I would see that as a profound failure because I voted for this, the community is all in favor of spending money on a school, it’s just a question of the efforts being made to incorporate the objections of the people that are ultimately paying for it.”

During public comment, resident Nicole Pentheroudakis said she wants the school to be rebuilt but she will continue to advocate for the play fields that children and the community needs.

“I agree that (a lawsuit) was inevitable based on the fact that we keep coming to you with creative, positive solutions. We have tried so hard to collaborate over and over and over again. And I understand why somebody would do that,” Pentheroudakis said of the lawsuit. “I don’t want that to happen. I really urge you to look again at Rolf’s design. The lawsuit is going to be a much bigger problem than working through some of these ADA issues.”

Rafner said having been involved in the process throughout, he believes that the public input portion of the plan was “sound”— he disagrees with any comment made that the district was secretive about the design.

“I further take umbrage that any employee of the district or any one of my colleagues here on the board have any kind of nefarious intention with the design of this project,” Rafner said. “Based on the input from the community regarding the field, I believed that the plan as designed could be redrawn in order to maximize the grass area, in fact revisions have increased the size of the grass area by almost 20,000 square feet. I believe the plan as designed currently has improved as a result.”

Play Outside Del Mar still disputes the district’s “false numbers” for the field space, which they contend is about 50 percent less than what is out there right now.

The district has released its initial study pursuant to CEQA of the rebuild’s environmental impacts. The district is issuing a Mitigated Negative Declaration, meaning that the study concluded that with mitigation the proposed project would have no significant adverse impacts on the environment.

A copy of the CEQA document is available for review online and comments can be made through March 23 at 5 p.m. to or the district office at 11232 El Camino Real, San Diego, 92130.