Del Mar hires legal counsel for housing

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

The Del Mar City Council has enlisted a specialized legal counsel to help the city navigate housing-related issues that have drawn warnings from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), including a referendum seeking to overturn a recent zoning change.

The city will pay up to $20,000 from the General Fund contingency for the new counsel, land use attorney Barbara E. Kautz from Goldfarb & Lipman.

Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland and City Councilwoman Tracy Martinez, who serve as the council’s Housing Subcommittee, met with Kautz to discuss the city’s upcoming decisions on housing.

“We wanted to be sure that we afford every possible way to meet what HCD has laid out for us, but do it the very best way we can for Del Mar,” Gaasterland said in an interview.

She added that working with Kautz will “help us come up with creative ways that are acceptable to HCD that make sense for Del Mar.”

Gaasterland and Martinez have both been outspoken against “blanket rezones” that add more density. But in a series of letters to Del Mar City Hall over the past several months, HCD officials have warned the city that it could be penalized for failing to implement upzones that were promised as part of the state’s fifth Regional Housing Needs Assessment from 2013 to 2021.

Those zoning changes are also crucial to winning HCD approval for Del Mar’s housing element that will cover the sixth RHNA cycle from 2021 to 2029, which requires the city to add 175 housing units, including 113 affordable. The city’s deadline for getting its new housing element approved by the state is April 15.

But a key zoning change in the draft housing element, an upzone to 16 acres of land off Jimmy Durante Boulevard zoned as North Commercial, has been suspended by a resident’s petition for a referendum and will be decided on an upcoming ballot.

The North Commercial upzone, which would allow 20 residential units per acre, also requires a four-fifths vote to integrate it into the Community Plan. By a 3-2 vote, the previous council failed to adopt that Community Plan amendment. The new version of the council, which includes two new members elected in November, has not reconsidered it because they want to explore alternatives.

The vote on the referendum would be held in November 2022 at the latest, per election law, but the longer timeline creates additional uncertainty in the city’s effort to keep its housing element in compliance. Council members decided on Jan. 11 to defer a decision on setting the date. Other options include holding a special election this June, or calling off the election if the proponent of the referendum, Del Mar resident Arnie Wiesel, agrees to withdraw it. Wiesel started the petition on behalf of a community group called the Del Mar Hillside Community Association.

An ad hoc subcommittee of Gaasterland and City Councilman Dave Druker was formed last month to reach out to Wiesel about ways to address the concerns in the petition without holding a vote.

Gaasterland said during the council’s Feb. 1 meeting that she is working on alternative options to present to him and other supporters of the referendum that would alleviate their concerns, which include hazardous environmental and traffic impacts.

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, Wiesel said he hasn’t yet been approached about withdrawing the petition, but emphasized that there were more than 600 residents who signed it and want their voices heard. Only 345 signatures were needed.

“The people want to make this decision because they know this is wrong,” said Wiesel, adding that “if you put this high density all through here, it’s going to compound an already serious problem of traffic gridlock.”

On whether he would be receptive to alternatives that preempt a referendum, he said “I certainly would entertain conversation.”