Demolition delayed on Del Mar Heights School

Del Mar Union School District administration offices.
(Staff photo)

Demolition of Del Mar Heights School was expected to begin in July but it has now been delayed to September pending a coastal development permit. The district said the delay was caused by inaccurate information about the review process from the city of San Diego.

According to Chris Delehanty, Del Mar Union School District’s director of capital programs, the district met with the city in July 2019 about the coastal development permit as the project is in the coastal overlay zone but they were told not to worry about it. The district reached out to the city again this spring with their architects Baker Nowicki and their planning firm Placeworks, who prepared the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document for the project.

Dwayne Mears of Placeworks said on May 1 that the city planning department again told the district that they were not required to get the coastal development permit.

“There was some uncertainty about it, it was confusing,” Mears said at the board’s July 22 meeting. “We were a bit concerned about the original answer, it didn’t seem to be like the right answer so we kept digging.”

On May 14, the city’s decision was indeed reversed. Delehanty said the district immediately submitted its application for an expedited coastal development review process.

The purpose of the city’s coastal overlay zone is to protect and enhance the quality of public access and coastal resources. According to the district’s Mitgated Negative Declaration, the project site is a developed elementary school and the school campus does not obstruct or degrade public access to the coast or coastal resources.

“Redevelopment of the campus would not obstruct or degrade public access to the coast or coastal resources,” the document states. “Although the existing campus is within the coastal zone, rebuilding the school on the same site would not have an effect on the coastal zone.”

The Heights rebuild project is expected to be before the hearing officer on Sept. 2. If the coastal development permit is issued at that time, the district would begin demolition in September and construction in October or November. The school campus would then be completed by October or November 2021. Delehanty said they would be able to welcome students back for the start of the 2021 school year while items are being completed.

The Torrey Pines Community Planning Board will be reviewing the Del Mar Heights rebuild’s coastal development permit at a virtual project review committee meeting on Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. Visit for access instructions.

The issue of the project’s location in the coastal zone was raised during the public comment portion of the district’s Mitigated Negative Declaration for the rebuild. The law firm Procopio’s comments on behalf of Save the Field stated that the district failed to identify that the project was located in a coastal zone and therefore did not properly measure the rebuild’s environmental impacts.

On June 12, Save the Field filed a petition for a writ of mandate in San Diego County Superior Court against DMUSD to revoke the approval of the rebuild, its environmental document and suspend any activity in pursuit of the rebuild. The filing alleges that the district’s CEQA process was “flawed from the beginning, resulting in an incomplete and inaccurate environmental review with a mitigated negative declaration”.

Save the Field did not respond to requests for comments by press time about the status of the lawsuit.

The Heights site is zoned for residential development and a conditional use permit is required for educational facilities in that zone. Opponents have argued that an amendment should be required for the permit as they believe the rebuild is an intensification of use from the original 1959 school meant for 350 students.

The district has stated that as the site currently operates as an educational facility and the rebuilt school would not intensify the use of the property, it does not need to apply for a conditional use permit. Under the proposed plan, the total capacity of the school would be 537 students, with the reduction of one K-3 classroom on the campus. The Heights had 444 students in 2019-20 and is projected to have 350 students in 2020-21—if allowed to reopen, Heights students will be split between Ocean Air and Del Mar Hills during the one-year construction.

At the July 22 meeting, the board approved a resolution rendering the city’s zoning inapplicable to Del Mar Heights as well as proactively for the three other district sites that are located in residential areas zoned for residential development— that includes Del Mar Hills, Sycamore Ridge and the new East Pacific Highlands Ranch School, which is anticipated to begin construction in November.

With the resolution, which according to the city is not an uncommon action, the district would be exempt from local zoning requirements including conditional use permits.