Del Mar housing element sets up negotiations with fairgrounds on affordable housing

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

Faced with a state housing mandate, the Del Mar City Council will enter a three-year window to strike a deal for affordable housing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, otherwise the city might have to zone for high-density development on its north and south bluffs.

Development on the bluffs remains unpopular within the coastal enclave. But those terms are part of the city’s new housing element, which the council voted 4-0 to approve on March 25. City Councilwoman Tracy Martinez was recused. It now goes to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for certification.

As part of the state’s sixth cycle Regional Housing Needs Allocation for 2021-29, Del Mar has to zone for 113 affordable housing units, and 175 total. Fifty-one affordable units are tentatively slated for the fairgrounds. But if the City Council and board of directors that operate the state-owned fairgrounds can’t come to terms in three years, the city’s backup plan is to upzone the bluffs.

In February, the fair board declined to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the city of Del Mar about adding affordable housing at the fairgrounds, but board members remain open to working toward an agreement.

During last week’s council meeting, Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland asked about potential last-minute alternatives to exempt the bluffs, including submitting the housing element to the state with the backup plan left blank. Assistant City Attorney Barry J. Schultz said the odds of HCD certifying the housing element without a specific backup plan are “next to zero.”

Gaasterland said during the meeting that she felt “heartsick” voting for a housing element that could result in high-density housing on the north and south bluffs.

“But if I vote my conscience tonight, I will be derelict in my fiduciary duty to Del Mar,” she added. “The state will come crashing down on us.”

City Councilman Dan Quirk said HCD should take a more proactive role in compelling the fairgrounds to add the housing that would preempt development on the bluffs. Quirk mentioned the possibility of suing the fairgrounds.

“No one wants to voluntarily build affordable housing. No cities want to. The fairgrounds, I’m sure, just thinks this is a pain, they want to focus on surviving,” he said, referring to budgetary issues at the fairgrounds caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “No one wants to voluntarily do this, so I think there needs to be some threats and intimidation. That’s why we’re complying, because there are threats and intimidation.”

Del Mar’s housing element has been out of compliance for years. HCD has sent multiple letters over the past several months reiterating that the city is in danger of fines, loss of local control, litigation from the state attorney general and other consequences. HCD certification of the housing element approved by the council last week would quell those threats.

The vote on the housing element culminated an often divisive process among council members over the last year to agree on terms for the new housing element and complete zoning changes from the previous one.

Last October, the previous City Council voted 3-2 to approve the draft housing element. Then-Deputy Mayor Gaasterland, along with City Councilman Dave Druker, voted against it. They both said they felt there were alternatives to be considered.

Last fall, Gaasterland and Druker had also voted against an ordinance that upzoned multiple parcels of land off Jimmy Durante Boulevard, zoned as North Commercial, to 20 residential units per acre, which was part of the city’s housing element from 2013-21. The zoning ordinance passed 3-2, but about 600 residents signed a petition to suspend it.

The city is now negotiating with the proponents to get them to withdraw the petition, which would avoid a ballot measure on whether the upzone should be implemented. If residents vote against it, an upzone would instead be implemented on the north bluff, off Border Avenue. In exchange for a potential withdrawal, the city would address the environmental, traffic and other potential adverse effects of development that residents were concerned about.

Gaasterland said in an interview that her opposition of the North Commercial upzone last year “was a protest vote in many ways,” but with an April 15 deadline to complete the new housing element looming, there wasn’t a better option that would satisfy state requirements. And to help alleviate community concerns, the council voted March 15 for a Community Plan amendment to ban multiunit development on six of 16 North Commercial parcels; although city planners have said constraints such as coastal zone regulations would have prevented the full-scale buildout of all 16 parcels anyway. The remaining 10 parcels, which include the two parcels for the proposed Watermark project, could accommodate a maximum of about 180 units.

On March 25, the council also implemented an overlay zone that would apply objective design standards to “by-right” development, which can be imposed by the state as a penalty for failing to meet housing mandates. Objective design standards would provide a measure of city oversight over basic zoning elements, though not as extensive as a typical design review process.

The overlay zone would apply to the potential development on the bluffs. But it will not apply to Watermark, which is a by-right project due to a state penalty imposed on Del Mar from a the fourth RHNA cycle, because the planning is too far along.

Druker said during the meeting that the new housing element “is the best we can do.”

“We have no choice,” he said. “But this is better than it was in October, this is better than it was in January, and I think we have tweaked it as far as we can tweak it.”