Judge issues ruling in Heights rebuild lawsuit

The Del Mar Heights rebuild as seen from Mira Montana.

The Del Mar Union School District must address three outstanding environmental issues before continuing on with its Del Mar Heights School rebuild, according to a Dec. 22 ruling in the lawsuit against the district by Save the Field.

Save the Field’s lawsuit centers on the belief that the district’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process was flawed, resulting in an incomplete and inaccurate environmental review. Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil found that the “abbreviated environmental process employed by district did not, in part, comply with CEQA.” The judge concluded while there were three areas that the district should study further, 10 out of the 13 complaints against the district were without merit.

The three areas in need of further study include the temporary noise from the on-site construction of the new school, whether additional traffic might occur from the construction of the pedestrian access point at the Mira Montana Drive cul-de-sac, and whether the sensitive Chaparral habitat will be disturbed in the repairs to the two stormwater drainage systems in the neighboring Torrey Pines Reserve Extension.

“The district believes this decision vindicates the project planning process, particularly in finding the main portions of the litigants’ complaints without merit,” the district said in a statement. “To bring resolution to this as soon as possible, the district will act to address the court’s direction on the three remaining items so as to move forward with this important rebuild project.”

Both sides view the ruling as a victory.

“Now that the judge has set aside the central concerns raised by the litigants, we stand ready to move forward with the rebuild of Del Mar Heights School,” DMUSD board President Erica Halpern said in a statement. “We hope that once the few remaining open items are addressed, these neighbors will cooperate in getting our kids back to school and allowing our community access to this beautiful new campus.”

According to Save the Field spokesperson Rick Schloss, they have believed all along that the district violated the law by preparing an insufficient environmental document, “shortcutting review of its project in order to fast track it without regard for CEQA”.

“A full EIR to fully study all impacts is the only appropriate process to safeguard our community. This is a necessary step that should have been done from the beginning, but instead DMUSD ignored these concerns and refused to address important issues,” said Schloss. “Rather than pursuing an EIR on this flawed project, DMUSD has an opportunity to rethink and redesign, to rebuild the school and Save the Field, protecting limited recreational open space for generations to come. The district has that responsibility to its students, families, the community and our entire region.”

One of the key complaints of Save the Field has been the loss in the school’s playing field and hardscape areas by 50%. Among his findings, Wohlfeil ruled that the impact associated with community recreational use is insignificant: “Although the rebuild project will result in changes, these changes are not significant for purposes of a CEQA analysis.”

While Save the Field has argued that no school should be built in the required defensible space within 100 feet of the high fire risk zone of the reserve, the court concluded that there was no potential for a significant impact. The court recognized safety features in the rebuild including the fire access lane, additional fire hydrants, moving buildings an additional 20 feet from the canyon edge, upgrading to fire-resistant buildings and equipping buildings with fire sprinklers.

“The rebuild project will alleviate current fire risk conditions by increasing the setback, not make these impacts worse,” the ruling stated. “As a result, there is no demonstrated potential for a significant impact related to a 100-foot setback requirement.”