The Del Mar Union School District board fears it is gearing up for a legal fight with its Del Mar Heights School rebuild. The board met in closed session April 7 to discuss potential litigation surrounding alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and its consideration of a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the Del Mar Heights School rebuild.
In February, the district posted its MND for the Heights rebuild, determining that with mitigation the proposed project would have no significant adverse impacts on the environment. During the public comment period which was extended to March 30 due the COVID-19 pandemic, the board received comments from the law firm Procopio which was hired by the non-profit community group Save the Field. 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.
Before the board met in closed session on a Zoom teleconference call, several people spoke out against against what one parent called a “frivolous challenge from a small number of deep-pocketed individuals.”
Del Mar parent Sandip Patel said as unexpected as the virtual meeting would have seemed months ago, it was just as unexpected that a law firm would be retained “attempting to derail a robust democratic majority who support the rebuild.”
“In utilizing the same firm that sued Cardiff School District, the goal for these people to financially capitalize on disruption of the district plan represents a clear financial conflict of interest that must be further investigated,” Patel said. “While the legally well-connected and well-to-do can afford lawyers for their personal benefit under the guise of multiple shell corporations, our children do not have that luxury.”
Parent Frank Stonebanks said he was speaking on behalf of Friends of Del Mar Heights, a coalition of residents, taxpayers, teachers and former principal Wendy Wardlow who want the new school to begin construction in June without delay.
“How long must our children and teachers suffer with this?” Stonebanks asked. “A delay, brought on by legal maneuvering intended solely to trip up the district in a ‘gotcha’ kind of way re CEQA, is an affront to every decent resident with children who actually attend the school.”
Procopio’s 60-page letter argues that the MND is inadequate and does not address potentially significant impacts such as aesthetics, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. The letter states that the MND also fails to adequately consider the project’s impacts on the adjacent Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension or the impact of reducing open space within a community that is lacking park space. Procopio’s letter states that the district must prepare and circulate a full Environmental Impact Report before approving the rebuild or at a minimum, the MND should be revised and recirculated.
In addition to Procopio’s letter, the district also received comments from Play Outside Del Mar and the Sierra Club’s North County Coastal Group, who stated that the rebuild plan has not fully addressed all of the environmental impacts and a more thorough analysis and better mitigation would be required before it is approved.
Del Mar Heights School parents said they were frustrated and “disgusted” by the threat of litigation as they believe the process to design the school has been fair and compromises have been made for the sake of the fields. “Sure there is still dissenting voices within the school community but is a vast minority compared to those who support it,” said parent Ana West.
West said any delay caused by potential litigation will cost the district time, money and increase the time that students are on an “unsuitable” campus environment. Heights parent Stonebanks said that children were moved from a condemned classroom last year due to issues with leaking roofs and rat infestations.
“Diversity of opinion is healthy, it is part of the process and we’ve had the process. Did I get everything I wanted? No. But it is time to move forward for the benefit of all the current and future kids at this school and the taxpayers that live in the district,” said parent Jesse Barrick. “We, as a community, are better than this…We will continue to care about and fight for our children’s education and we will not quit.”
Members from the Save the Field group did not provide comment at the board meeting. According to a group spokesperson, they are a large group that formed back in May 2019 and they just submitted the formal nonprofit paperwork with the secretary of state in January.
Members of the community have been donating funds to support Procopio’s work.
The Cardiff lawsuit, filed by the community group Save the Park and Build the School, alleged a violation of 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 land and the district had already torn down a portion of the campus and started construction when the lawsuit was filed.
Many Cardiff parents were angered that the opponents received a $500,000 “payoff” in the settlement, but as Save the Park and Build the School has stated, the payment specified in the settlement agreement was for legal fees and costs incurred in the litigation and only represented a fraction of the legal fees that were spent.
“No one at Save the Park will see a dime of this so-called ‘payoff’,” said a Save the Park representative.
The DMUSD board will hold a special board meeting to review the environmental document and comments received on Tuesday, April 14 on a Zoom teleconference. It will be an information item only, no action will be taken.
The district’s MND asserts that the rebuild will not have a significant effect on the environment due to its proposed mitigations. The proposed developments on site are limited to one story with low slope roofs and the development remains almost entirely within the fenced limits of the existing school.
Per the MND, the project would enhance and update the school’s outdoor recreational spaces, improve parking and queuing onsite, reduce congestion on the surrounding roadways and would provide a 20-foot wide fire access lane around the entire campus. While the school site is within a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, the construction of infrastructure improvements for the project would not directly increase fire risk and impacts would be “less than significant.”
John Gartman of Play Outside Del Mar’s comments address the reduction of the field and blacktop play areas, traffic impact and wildfire risk to show a fair argument can be made for a full environmental review.
“In a single paragraph, the MND claims ‘no significant impact would occur’ with little more than a wave of the hand. Mind you, this is not an EIR where a judgment is reached after study, after assessment of alternatives, after weighing public input, after weighing the evidence of pros and cons,” Gartman wrote. “No, this is an MND, where ‘no significant impact’ says the district has concluded that not even a fair argument can be raised that it could possibly have a substantial impact - in other words, it’s such a slam dunk on the facts that its not worth the bother of studying it in an EIR.”
Both Play Outside and Save the Fields’ letters also alleged that the district violated CEQA by submitting construction plans to the Division of the State Architect (DSA) prior to project approval, heightening both groups’ concerns that the district will “ignore environmental concerns and not consider project alternatives or mitigation measures.”
According to DMUSD Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty, the district submitted information for the Heights rebuild to the Division of the State Architect (DSA) in February as part of a pre-check prior to final DSA submittal. According to Delehanty, this pre-check process allows the district and DSA to review whether there are issues regarding the proposed project, providing the district the opportunity to address issues and make changes before seeking board approval.
Delehanty said that the DSA approval process will not begin until after the board’s approval of the CEQA documents and the final design.