Del Mar Heights rebuild plan takes another step forward

The view of the new Heights school from Mira Montana.

The Del Mar Union School District will move forward with the rebuild plan for Del Mar Heights School.

At a virtual meeting on May 12, the board certified its Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the project, which concluded that the rebuild will result in no significant effects on the environment and is instead improving pre-existing conditions. The plan now goes to the Division of State Architects for approval and the district could be breaking ground on the new school by the end of June or early July.

The meeting included three hours of public comment, the majority in support of the rebuild while several residents still shared concerns about losing green space and the adequacy of the district’s environmental review.

“This has been a really long process but I really appreciate how many people care about the Heights rebuild,” said DMUSD Board President Erica Halpern.

Halpern said she moved her family to Del Mar almost 10 years ago for her children to attend the school and she was a part of the first facilities planning committee back in 2014, meetings held in one of the aging portables. She said over the years and throughout the design process the district worked to engage the community in the “creative and complicated” exercise to design the school, starting with blank pieces of paper at the first architectural planning meeting over a year ago.

“To each person who took the time to write a letter or stand up and speak at a school board meeting, the result is an improved school. It creates a better environment for kids and continues to welcome the community with open arms,” Halpern said. “I’m so grateful for all the many, many hours of effort, care and attention that many hundreds of people have put into the result that is before us today. We have a school design that I fully believe we will all love.”

Board member Katherine Fitzpatrick was happy to second the motion to approve the MND—she went to Del Mar Heights and grew up down the street. “I’m really excited to see a new Del Mar Heights because the one that’s standing is the one that I went to and it hasn’t changed other than the addition of the portables,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is really exciting.”

Olivia and Alexis Stonebanks spoke in support of the rebuild at the May 12 meeting.

The plans for the rebuild aim to reduce vehicular congestion, improve pedestrian safety, maximize on-site queuing and parking, respect neighborhood views with one-story buildings and low rooflines and provide improved emergency vehicle access.

Halpern said that the new plan invites community use with better playgrounds, a new park open during school hours, an ADA accessible walking path along the canyon rim and a pedestrian connection leading to the entrance of the Torrey Pines Reserve Extension.

“The district rebuild plan is the compromise and over time each community meeting has shrunken the new school and grown the new field,” said parent Sandip Patel, speaking on Zoom with the background of one of the Heights’ portable’s leaky roofs.

Last month the board received over 400 emails in support of the rebuild and during public comment, the board heard from Heights parents, teachers and a handful of young students looking forward to new play spaces, getting out of portables that were either too hot or too cold, and getting tables to sit at during lunch.

“I want to get my school rebuilt because it is kinda falling apart,” said first grader Alexis Stonebanks, who said she really wanted new classrooms. “I love our school but I think we need a new one as soon as possible.”

Teachers complimented how the design embraces nature with increased outdoor learning access and gets them out of deteriorating portables and oddly-shaped classrooms and into more “forward-thinking” and dynamic classroom spaces.

“We are at the cusp of building the school of which we dreamed for so many years, and I’m filled with excitement and gratitude that it’s finally happening,” said Wendy Wardlow, former Heights principal.

Several speakers spoke out in opposition of the plan and remained critical of the district’s design process. Many said they are not against the rebuild but that they believe there is still a better option, particularly one that does not give up green space in favor of the parking lot. Many mentioned the divisiveness that the plan has created in the community.

“It’s so sad to hear people that we’ve known for so many years become so angry and so upset just because we have differences of opinion,” said Del Mar resident Ann Lopez. “ I think it’s important that we build a school that will be safe for our children but also that we are good neighbors for the entire community, which includes having a beautiful field.”

Save the Field representatives Shana Khoury and Kelley Huggett, both spoke during public comment, with Huggett reiterating the group’s request that the board conduct a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Huggett said she was alarmed that the MND states that there are no environmental impacts when the school is doubling parking and increasing buildings on the Torrey Pines Reserve.

“The significant changes to our neighborhood are forever…We are losing a significant portion of our community, our cherished field,” Huggett said. “We appreciate the improvements the architect and board have made along the way, however, there is still obviously room for improvement and a rushed process is preventing us from achieving the best design.”

The Save the Field group’s motives were again questioned by Heights parents who fear that the group’s hiring of the law firm Procopio could mean the district may face a lawsuit similar to the one against Cardiff School District, which halted construction for three months.

Del Mar resident Greg Heinzinger said he believes the district is appropriately using an MND and that preparing an EIR would be a waste of taxpayer dollars and is unlikely to result in a changed design. Parents urged the dissenting groups not to move forward with a lawsuit that would only create “needless and expensive roadblocks.”

“I’m disheartened at the objections brought by outliers who are using CEQA as a tool to stall and halt these necessary community projects,” said Del Mar resident Suzy Marinkovich. “There is a silent majority and indeed an increasingly loud majority that sees these tactics for what they are. The views of a few isolated residents that are not demonstrative of the many parents in this community that want to see our children provided with this long-overdue rebuild.”

District’s response addresses wildfire risk
Dwayne Mears of Placeworks, who prepared the document, said athough not required to, the district prepared a 370-page document responding to all comments on the MND from public agencies such as the Sierra Club North County Coastal Group, the city of San Diego and California Department of Parks and Recreation and those received from individuals.

Clerk Gee Wah Mok said he was confident that the document addressed every issue that the community has brought up.

Mears said many comments on the MND wrongly asserted greater environmental impacts due to increased enrollment. Under the proposed plan, the general education capacity would be reduced to 507, with the total capacity reduced to 537 due to the reduction of one K-3 classroom in the rebuild.

Wildfire risk was also a big issue in the comments received.

During public comment, John Gartman of Play Outside Del Mar questioned that the western fire access road, the only way for emergency vehicles to access the center of campus, is placed right on the edge of the canyon.

“There’s no defense to the argument that (the road) is potentially blockable by a wildfire,” Gartman said of the MND responses.

There were also concerns voiced about wildfire defensible space between the proposed buildings and the fuel sources in the adjacent reserve.

Wendy Wiles, the district’s attorney, said that defensible space is not necessarily an environmental issue as it more relates to how the school should be built. She said when the district submits plans to DSA, they will determine if the plans meet the state’s safety requirements with a broader analysis than what is done by the MND.

According to the MND, the district recognizes that the site is in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone and the plan has been “designed carefully with these concerns in mind.” Improved fire safety features include the fire access road, reducing congestion which improves emergency vehicle access and evacuation times, moving buildings farther away from the canyon edge and utilizing safer building materials and features such as fire sprinklers which they do not have now. There are also currently no fire hydrants on site and the plan includes the addition of four new fire hydrants.

In the district’s MND response, the district claims the plan has been pre-approved by the City of San Diego Fire Marshall.

Many individual comments on the MND were concerned with the substantial adverse effect of “slashing the playfields and blacktops by 50 percent,” however, Mears said that the loss of public access to recreational space is not directly a CEQA/environmental issue.

COVID-19 concerns

Although not addressed by the MND, during public comment some parents also shared their concerns about how COVID-19 will impact the project. With the new educational landscape brought on by the pandemic, parents expressed concerns about the safety of shutting down a school and consolidating student populations at Ocean Air and Del Mar Hills at a time when the state is likely mandating reducing student populations at schools.

“This seems rather like squeezing in than spreading out,” said parent Susanne Klas.

There were also concerns expressed about plans to use bus transportation for Heights students during the one-year construction in light of physical distancing requirements.

DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district has been working with the San Diego County Office of Education, county health experts and a district committee on the potential return to school, which will ultimately be under the direction of the governor. McClurg said the district is looking at all potential scenarios with the primary mission of keeping everybody safe and in school.

DMUSD Trustee Scott Wooden said he understood the concerns about putting more students at Ocean Air and Del Mar Hills but the issue with social distancing will be with individual classrooms, “The classrooms aren’t going to be adding any more students,” he said.

McClurg said that the district is fortunate that they do have significantly lower class sizes and a lot of space in their schools but they will be considering all safety aspects when they do re-open schools.