Del Mar to prepare ‘focused’ environmental study for Heights rebuild

The rendering of Del Mar Heights School.

The Del Mar Heights School rebuild is on hold as the Del Mar Union School District completes additional environmental reviews, stemming from a court decision in the lawsuit against the district by Save the Field.

The district had planned to break ground on the project last summer and for students to be in their new school in August 2021, however, Heights students will continue to attend school off-site in the 2021-22 school year at Ocean Air School and Del Mar Hills Academy.

The project has been slowed by the requirement for a coastal development permit from the City of San Diego and the lawsuit, which alleges the district failed to comply with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) with its “insufficient” Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) that concluded that the rebuild will result in no significant impacts on the environment. At the Feb. 24 meeting, the board vacated its approval of the MND to begin work on a “focused” environmental impact report.

“We want the taxpayers and community to know that we have taken every step, we’ve done nothing wrong,” DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said. “We followed the right process to rebuild this school and we are committed to making sure we rebuild this school for students to attend now and for generations to come. It is very disappointing the impact that this lawsuit is having on our students.”

On Feb. 8, the district received the court’s judgment, concluding that while there were three areas that the district needs to study further, 10 out of the 13 complaints against them were without merit including the impact on community recreational use and wildfire risk.

The court is allowing the district to decide how it will address the three remaining items required for the rebuild to move forward: “Although the litigant asked the court to order the district to prepare a full environmental impact report (EIR) the court refused that request,” said Cathy Birks, assistant superintendent of business services.

Dwayne Mears of Placeworks, the district’s environmental consultant, said they will move forward in preparing a focused EIR on the remaining issues: analyzing whether the sensitive Chaparral habitat in the neighboring Torrey Pines Reserve Extension will be disturbed due to repairs to the two stormwater drainage systems, and analyzing the impact of temporary noise from on-site construction of the school.

The third outstanding issue on the potential increased traffic on Mira Montana Drive was considered resolved as the board voted in January to remove the stairs and ADA access near the cul-de-sac at the end of the street.

Mears estimates this process will take an additional four months for final board certification and approval of the project.

A notice of intent on the focused EIR went out on March 1 and there will be 30 days for the public to provide input. A draft EIR will then be prepared with an analysis of the two issues, with another 45 days for public comment. The final EIR document will then need to be approved by the board.

The city’s coastal development permit is on hold and will not be issued until the new district CEQA document is prepared.

While the district expressed frustration with the delay, in a statement Save the Field said it could have been avoided.

“Unfortunately, DMUSD mismanagement, short cuts and lack of collaboration have created this delay,” said Rick Schloss, spokesperson for Save the Field. “The project should have been managed properly from the start. Instead, the district tried to circumvent the coastal commission permit, did not follow CEQA environmental law, and has refused to listen to the community.”

McClurg said that the district did listen to the community in the design for the new school, which includes replacing aging campus portables with new classroom buildings that meet the educational needs of the students. McClurg said the design focus was on keeping building heights at one story to minimize the view impact on neighbors and an expanded parking lot and queue area is meant to resolve issues with traffic congestion on surrounding neighborhood streets and to improve emergency vehicle access.

Those who opposed the design argued that the campus layout takes away too much green space from the school’s ocean-view playing fields, as well as creates additional traffic and safety concerns.

While there will be a loss in the current field, the plan includes over two acres of multi-use grass field, an additional park that will be open to the community during school hours and an ADA accessible walking path along the canyon rim.

“Rather than take responsibility for its errors, the district chose to defend a flawed MND. Now they have to listen to a judge,” said Schloss. “Save the Field appreciates the court’s ruling and will continue to advocate to protect the health, wellness and safety of our community. It is time for the district to rethink and redesign the school for a post-pandemic world and Save the Field – which ultimately will be faster than continuing to defend an unsafe, flawed design.”

The district is using Measure MM general obligation bond funds to pay for the lawsuit, as it is the most restricted funds that the district has and they have a timeline of three years of when they need to spend it. Birks said they will be working with their legal counsel on going back to the IRS and requesting an extension on the number of years they can expend the funds. Otherwise, they will be looking at how to spend the funds in a different manner.

“It’s unfortunate because as we deplete that fund that means something else is going to be affected by that,” Birks said. “And as we extend out this project, the cost of this project continues to increase.”

The district’s facilities master plan includes modernizations of Del Mar Hills Academy and Carmel Del Mar School as well as improvement projects at all schools throughout the district. The district’s other major MM project in progress is its ninth school in East Pacific Highlands Ranch. The city’s review process on the project has also been delayed.

Birks said if they can stay on the current timeline, they expect to be before the San Diego City Planning Commission this month and have a coastal development permit secured by April. Construction would begin in April with August 2022 as the target opening date. Due to the delay, the kitchen and the after-school program rooms may not be completed by the start of the school year.