Board approves environmental review of Heights school rebuild

The DMUSD board met in person on June 30 at Ocean Air School
(Karen Billing)

The Del Mar Union School District board approved the final focused environmental impact report for Del Mar Heights School, hoping to again move ahead with the rebuild of the 60-year-old Boquita Drive campus.

Plans for the rebuild include replacing aging portables with one-story classroom buildings and increasing parking and on-site queuing in an effort to reduce vehicular congestion on neighborhood streets.

The next steps will involve going back to court and upon resolution of the litigation with Save the Field, the district could resume the coastal development permit process with the city of San Diego. According to Chris Delehanty, executive director of capital programs, the process could take several months and the updated timeline to potentially begin construction is unknown.

Following public comment both in support and opposed to the rebuild at the June 30 board meeting at Ocean Air School, there was no board discussion of the decision.

After its initial environmental review document was challenged in court by Save the Field, the court ruled that three outstanding issues required further assessment in a focused environmental impact report (FEIR).

The FIER found that there are no significant biological impacts associated with repairing and revegetating the two stormwater outflows in the neighboring Torrey Pines Reserve Extension and that temporary construction noise can be mitigated to a level less than significant.

“We’ve done the most extensive construction noise analysis that we’ve ever done…and we’ve done an EIR of an NFL stadium,” said Dwayne Mears, from the district’s environmental consultant PlaceWorks.

Mears said the mitigations, which include temporary noise barriers, provide a lot of protection for the people who live in the neighborhood.

A third issue involving potential traffic impacts on Mira Montana Drive was considered resolved by the board after voting to remove the proposed new stairs and ramp from the plans.

The district received 54 comments on the FEIR, split almost equally between those in support and those opposed. Two governmental agencies also responded, including California Department of Parks and Recreation and the city of San Diego, requesting clarification on brush management and revegetation which the district has agreed to.

In their positive responses to the document, Del Mar parents and teachers wrote about being excited about returning home to a new and improved school and their disappointment that the school sat vacant for an entire school year.

“To continue to allow a small group of wealthy individuals to misappropriate environmental law and subvert a safe educational environment for our children is a tragedy,” wrote a number of parents in their response letters. “I hope the court sees the importance of a prompt resolution of these items without any further delay.”

During public comment Ian Phillips, a Heights teacher for 17 years, reiterated his support for the rebuild and his opposition to Save the Field’s actions, which he said has resulted in the district wasting taxpayer dollars on legal fees.

“Save the Field, you have hurt hundreds of students and teachers during a year that has already been the hardest of our entire career,” Phillips said. “You have thrown dart after dart at the project waiting for something to stick. You are out of excuses, you are out of reasons, you are out of line.”

Comments submitted in opposition centered on the district’s overall decline in enrollment and supported the FEIR’s alternative option of modernizing the campus in its existing footprint, which would create a smaller school that they said is safer, better for the environment and preserves the valuable green field space.

Neighbor Irene Young said despite speaking up multiple times, she does not believe that the district has listened to the community’s concerns: “I feel that the neighbors have been broken down.”

Representing Save the Field, spokesperson Rick Schloss called upon the district to quit “forcing a flawed plan” and instead come up with a solutions to “right-size” the school and save the field.

“Save The Field has repeatedly raised significant concerns that have been ignored by the Del Mar Union School District which continues to plow forward with a plan to build a mega-school with fire safety, evacuation safety and traffic safety issues,” Schloss said.

“And it is more troubling now than ever that the district proposes wiping out outdoor recreation open space that is so desperately needed for the physical and mental health of children and adults in the community – as if nothing has been learned from the past year,” Schloss continued. “No one will look back at the mega-school and think ‘Wow, sure glad we ripped out the recreation fields to pave a massive parking lot and construct buildings that sit empty.’”

In his comments, school neighbor Greg Jabin said although saddened by the loss of green field, he had come to support the new modernized campus with its plans for a community park in the northwest corner. The community park was replaced in the plans with an outdoor learning area for students and he has requested that the board consider replacing the “foreboding” proposed eight-foot-high fence at the front of the campus with a more welcoming three-foot fence.

With the Heights rebuild delayed, the district is moving ahead with other Measure MM projects. The district’s ninth school, Pacific Sky in east Pacific Highlands Ranch, is now under construction and set to open next fall. Outreach on the modernization of Del Mar Hills Academy has begun and a second meeting will be held in September. Construction is tentatively scheduled to start in summer 2022, targeting a fall 2023 opening.