Signature gathering underway in Del Mar for referendum to undo recent zoning change

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

With less than a week remaining to collect signatures, a group of Del Mar residents are seeking a referendum to overturn a zoning change that the City Council approved to comply with a state housing mandate.

That zoning decision, which would allow 20 residential units per acre on the city’s North Commercial parcels, was approved on a 3-2 vote by the council last month. The city committed to approving that rezone as part of the housing element it submitted for the state’s fifth Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which runs from 2013-21.

Next month, two of the three council members who voted for the rezone and declined to seek reelection will not be on the council anymore. They will be replaced by two newcomers who opposed it.

The one remaining council member who voted for it, Dwight Worden, published an open letter last week warning of possible state-imposed penalties if the city reneges on the North Commercial rezone through the referendum. But many residents still feel there are other options that would have less of an impact on Del Mar’s village-like ambiance.

“It’s about getting the housing without destroying aspects of Del Mar that are critically important,” Del Mar resident Arnie Wiesel said.

Wiesel and a group of homeowners face a Nov. 18 deadline to gather at least 345 signatures to bring the referendum to the City Council. If certified, it would suspend the rezone and the council would have the option to adopt the repeal or hold a special election for residents to decide. Wiesel said the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the signature-gathering process, and he’s not sure if they’ll make the deadline.

Worden addressed his open letter to Councilwoman-elect Tracy Martinez, who is on pace to finish first in the three-seat council race, urging her to oppose the referendum.

But Martinez said in an interview that she supports the referendum. She added that she thinks there are alternatives the city can pursue with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

“HCD makes these rules based on much larger cities,” she said, referring to density requirements included in state RHNA mandates. “We have a very unique city in that we’re tiny, and we have very little open space.”

She added that the city should be “thinking outside the box and not doing these blanket rezones. Literally it would turn the whole town upside down.”

In an interview, Worden said the state might view the referendum, if it’s certified, as Del Mar “going backwards” on the commitment the city made in its housing element for the fifth RHNA cycle.

The city’s housing element has technically been out of compliance for years, but Del Mar city planners have been working with HCD on a timeline to approve multiple rezones to rectify it, including last month’s North Commercial rezone to 20 units per acre. That rezone was also designed to comply with state law that requires cities to show they allow enough density to meet their housing mandates.

City planners have also warned council members about litigation from the state attorney general, fines, loss of local control over zoning decisions, loss of state grants, decertification of the city’s housing element or other possible consequences.

A repeal, Worden added, might cause HCD to say “enough is enough.” One of the consequences he fears most is losing grant money that the city would need to prepare for a 51-unit affordable housing plan at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The city’s proposed housing element for the sixth RHNA cycle, which runs from 2021-29, asks for a three-year window to finalize a plan with fairgrounds officials to add those units. For the upcoming RHNA cycle, Del Mar has to plan for 175 housing units, including 113 affordable. A backup plan to the fairgrounds option would be to add housing on the north and south bluffs, which most residents are opposed to.

“If we can’t get state grants, we don’t have any money as a city,” Worden said, alluding to COVID-related budget cuts. “The fairgrounds has even less than we do. The chances of us pulling off a fairgrounds option in three years is maybe not zero, but it’s pretty close.”

City Councilman Dave Druker, who won reelection, said he’s waiting for more information from HCD. The city is expecting a letter, which would be the latest in a correspondence the two sides have had over the last few months about the housing element. In a July letter, an HCD official said the agency was expecting Del Mar to upzone the North Commercial parcels to help the city add more affordable housing.

“Anybody can speculate they’re going to decertify us or whatever,” said Druker, who voted against the North Commercial zoning last month, along with Deputy Mayor Terry Gaasterland. “The proof’s going to be in the pudding.”

Councilman-elect Dan Quirk did not respond to requests for comment by press time.