Lawsuit against Del Mar Heights rebuild goes to court next week

A rendering of the Del Mar Heights School rebuild, which had been anticipated to break ground this month.

The Del Mar Union School District will meet Del Mar Heights School opponents in court on Nov. 18.

The group Save the Field filed the lawsuit against the district in San Diego County Superior Court in June to revoke the approval of the rebuild, its environmental document and suspend any activity in pursuit of the new school. The lawsuit alleges that the district’s California Environmental Quality Act process for the rebuild was flawed and argues that the district must prepare an Environmental Impact Report that properly describes the rebuild, analyzes its impacts and considers alternatives to reduce those impacts.

“What’s incredibly frustrating is that the only people who will admit to being a part of this lawsuit are neighbors who have expressly said their concern is their views,” said DMUSD President Erica Halpern at the Oct. 21 board meeting. “They were a part of the process and still have their views but will have to look over some roofs to look at the exact same view. It’s frustrating that a few people could cause this kind of impact for all the kids at Del Mar Heights and the ripple effect across the whole district.”

Several Heights families and teachers have spoken out in support of the rebuild and participated in a “Stand Up for the Heights” rally last month. A demonstration was also held on Mira Montana Drive on Nov. 8.

Rick Schloss, a spokesperson for Save the Fields, said that the group’s concerns are about more than just views.

“When open space of any sort is lost, we never get it back. That can’t be denied – whether it’s a playing field that is highly used by kids and adults, or The Preserve, or any open space – it’s gone forever. Not for a few years, or even a generation – it is permanently wiped out by development,” said Schloss in a statement. “The fact that it’s a school proposed to take the field space doesn’t change the fact that the playing field and open space is going to be paved and built over, forever.”

As the district prepares to go to court, they are also dealing with delays in the permitting for the Heights rebuild. Heights students are currently being housed off site at Del Mar Hills Academy and Ocean Air School and without a change in course, the Heights rebuild will not be completed by August 2021. If the district is able to break ground this December or January 2021, students will likely be off-campus to start the 2021-22 school year, according to Chris Delehanty, DMUSD executive director of capital programs.

Demolition of the old campus was expected to begin in July but it was delayed due to the district requiring a coastal development permit. The district was aware that it was in the city of San Diego’s coastal overlay zone but said they had been told the year prior and in early May 2020 that they did not need the permit before the position was reversed later that month.

As they continued in an expedited process for the coastal development permit, in late August the district was informed the project would require further city review for a conditional use permit and site development permit. That process is still ongoing.

Delehanty said there was no conditional use or site development permit prior to the legal involvement. He said that the increased scrutiny came only after the city became aware of the lawsuit filed by Procopio on behalf of Save the Field.

At the Oct. 21 board meeting, Delehanty shared his concerns about the Heights delay impacting all future Measure MM facilities projects. He said he had expected to have already begun planning for the Del Mar Hills modernization but that has not begun. Delays now, he said, may push back the timeline for projects like the Carmel Del Mar modernization and those further down the line such as play improvements at all schools and modernizations of Ashley Falls, Sage Canyon and Torrey Hills Schools.

“The Heights delay impacts every other school, this is not something isolated to the Heights,” said Clerk Gee Wah Mok. “This is a big deal that effects your tax dollars…it’s basically going to be spent on litigation and additional construction costs because of this delay.

“It’s a sad process. I’m disappointed because my money is being wasted. It’s tax dollars that I advocated for and now it’s just getting blown.”

In a statement, Schloss said that it is not the lawsuit that is causing delays but the district’s “poor planning and unrealistic timelines.”

“There is a simple solution: rebuild the school and preserve the field,” he said.

Schloss said now is the time to rethink the rebuild before the opportunity is lost, finding an “efficient and practical” way for the playing field and school to co-exist. Schloss said most importantly, the plan should address evacuation for students, faculty and neighbors in case of a fire in the canyon.

“Unfortunately, some people have chosen to intimidate and shout above those who have these very real concerns,” Schloss said. “The campaign to pressure neighbors and concerned citizens from speaking up doesn’t change the facts – the school district is wiping out the precious open space for a playing field that is heavily used, and it will be lost forever.”

The plans for the new Heights were driven by the goals to respect neighborhood views with one-story buildings, to reduce congestion on neighborhood streets by maximizing on-site queuing and parking, and to provide new educational spaces on a campus that is mostly portables. The plan does have less playing field space than the current site, however, the district said it still includes over two acres of multi-use grass field, improved playgrounds, indoor/outdoor connectivity in the classrooms via green spaces throughout the campus, a walking path along the canyon rim and a new park that will be open to the community during school hours.

“This is a beautiful school that has been planned by the community. We believe in it,” DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said. “It is a school that will be a wonderful school for the children and a great asset for this district in the future.”

The district also believes the new plan is safer than the existing school with improved emergency access, additional fire hydrants and replacing portables with permanent buildings that are further away from the canyon edge with sprinkler systems and ignition-resistant construction. Defensible space and a brush management plan will be required as part of the city’s permits.

At the Oct. 21 meeting Trustee Doug Rafner said the district needs to set their expectations properly regarding the legal action. While he has always been an advocate for getting the lawsuit resolved as soon as possible, he said he does not see it going away quickly. Back in March he had stated that he would not support deferring bond money or general fund money to defend a design that the community didn’t want.

“I don’t believe that this hearing is going to be the end of this. If the district is successful I believe it will be appealed,” Rafner said. “I believe the intention on the other side is to delay the construction here at the jeopardy of our district and our kids.”