Planning commission grants coastal permit for Del Mar Heights School

Del Mar Heights School
The rebuild of Del Mar Heights School will remove portable classrooms and move the campus buildings away from the edge of the Torrey Pines Reserve.
(Karen Billing)

The Del Mar Union School District received its last crucial approval for the Del Mar Heights School rebuild project, clearing the way for construction to begin on the 60-year-old campus at the end of Boquita Drive.

On Oct. 21, the San Diego Planning Commission approved the project’s coastal development permit, conditional use permit, planned development permit and site development permit in a 5-0 vote. The commissioners supported the design that addresses traffic congestion on neighborhood streets by pulling parking and queuing on-site, and utilizes low-slung, one-story buildings to lessen the impact on surrounding homeowners’ views.

“I think this is a huge improvement from what it was,” said Chair William Hofman.

Commissioner Douglas Austin said he tried to understand the opposition’s push to save the field but he believes there will be “comparable acreage” with the new school: “I can’t see any reason not to approve this,” he said.

Austin said the opposition effort appeared to be an example of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) being “weaponized to protect a hidden agenda.”

“The allegations being raised are specious and I agree with Commissioner Austin that this is a weaponization of CEQA for private gain,” said Commissioner Matthew Boomhower. “I really, really, really wish the NIMBY crowd would come up with some original material because what we’re getting is the tired trope of ‘I’m not opposed to schools I just don’t want a school here.’ Substitute housing you would get the same argument we get here from the anti-housing crowd.”

With the planning commission’s approval, the district will now work toward scheduling a groundbreaking, beginning construction and bringing students and staff back to their home school—for over a year, Heights students have been attending school at Del Mar Hills Academy and Ocean Air School.

“The much needed rebuild of these aging school buildings has been a long time coming,” said Superintendent Holly McClurg in a news release. “This is an outstanding project designed to meet the needs of our students and be a benefit to the community for decades to come.”

Demolition of the Heights campus had been planned to occur in July 2020 with the new school opening in August 2021 but the project was delayed due to the district finding out late in its process that they required a coastal development permit from the city. The process was further delayed due to litigation from Save the Field, which challenged the district’s CEQA environmental review in a lawsuit.

In December 2020, the judge ruled 10 out of the 13 complaints against the district were without merit and there were three areas that the district should study further.

The areas in need of further study included construction noise, potential traffic impacts from a new pedestrian access point at the Mira Montana Drive cul-de-sac, and whether the sensitive Chaparral habitat would be disturbed by the repairs to the two stormwater drainage systems in the neighboring Torrey Pines Reserve Extension.

A focused environmental impact report (EIR), approved by the board in June 2021, found that there are no significant biological impacts associated with repairing and revegetating the stormwater outflows and that temporary construction noise can be mitigated to a level less than significant.

The 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.

At the Oct. 21 hearing, San Diego city staff said they determined no new mitigation is required and all impacts have been adequately addressed.

DMUSD Board President Erica Halpern described the community engagement process to design the school, in which she said the plans changed three times to increase field space and accommodate concerns about view corridors.

The rebuild will involve the demolition of 52,406 square feet of the existing Heights and the development of 66,823 square feet of new school facilities designed to accommodate a total capacity of 537 students. All 13 portables on campus will be replaced with permanent classrooms.

The rebuild does result in less playing field space, however, it aims to provide better playgrounds, indoor/outdoor connectivity in the classrooms via green spaces throughout the campus, a new outdoor learning space and a walking path along the canyon rim.

During the hearing, 19 parents and community members spoke both in favor and opposition of the rebuild.

“There is an overwhelming majority of support for this project in the community,” said Bryce Dixon, a Del Mar native and Heights parent, anxious for his preschooler to attend the school after his sixth-grader has missed out on a year. “The opposition has no real endgame here other than to delay and extract money out of the project and the bond.”

Ethan Franke, who lives two houses from the school on Boquita Drive, said he believed that the district has been forthright in its planning process and that the rebuild will be an improvement over the current traffic queuing which he said is both a “nightmare” and dangerous.

Those in support of the rebuild said that the few homeowners represented by Save the Field are only interested in preserving their ocean views.

“There’s really no other design that’s feasible to avoid traffic and fire risk. That’s why the organization that opposes it is called Save the Field,” said parent Sandip Patel. “They view it as a field, they don’t view it as a school.”

Those opposed to the rebuild said that it about more than just views, but protecting the community, the Torrey Pines Reserve and saving “critical” recreation space.

“We absolutely want an upgraded school but we want it in a way that is best for the health, wellness and safety of the community,” said neighbor Kelley Huggett. “Many of us participated in the meetings, however we were just not listened to. We are environmental stewards and advocates for safe schools and we just can’t stand by and watch the district continue to shortcut the CEQA process and attempt to slam dunk a flawed project.”

The Del Mar Heights campus below Mira Montana Drive.
(Karen Billing)

In their lawsuit, Save the Field raised concerns about the district’s “incomplete and inadequate” CEQA process. At the hearing, Save the Field spokesperson Rick Schloss said the planning commission should not just rubber-stamp the district’s “woefully inadequate” environmental documents: “Del Mar Union School District doesn’t get a free pass just because they are a school district.”

A legal appeal is currently in progress. In August, the law firm of Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves and Savitch filed an appeal in the California Superior Court of San Diego County, challenging the court’s judgment that dismissed 10 of the 13 claims.

Deputy City Attorney Corrine Neuffler said, as it related to the court proceedings, there was nothing that prevented the commission from moving forward in granting the development permits.

Several speakers said that when they supported the Measure MM school bond in 2018, they did not vote for a rebuild or complete redevelopment but for a school modernization. Ballot language stated “repair/upgrade/reconstruct deteriorated school facilities” and the 2018 facilities master plan for Heights details “a complete redevelopment of this entire site.”

Opponents said they were in support of the alternative option studied in the focused EIR, to modernize the school in its existing footprint. They argued that the proposed design causes a real fire danger as the site is located in a “Very High Fire Severity Zone,” as determined by CalFire, raising concerns about wildfire evacuation.

“We’re nervous, we’re scared, we’re deceived and we’re angry,” said neighbor Amy Hellencamp.

Commissioner Ken Malbrough said that the situation right now appears to be the community’s biggest wildfire threat, noting that the rebuild will be a safety upgrade as it includes moving portables away from the canyon edge, adding three fire hydrants, improving the fire lane and driveway for better emergency access and adding buildings with sprinklers.

Opponents also pointed to the fact that the Torrey Pines Community Planning Group was not involved in the decision process. Commissioner Austin, too, said he thought it was strange that the advisory planning group had not weighed in.

The planning board’s project review committee did review the project in June 2020. According to Chair Troy Van Horst, after that meeting they became aware that litigation had been filed. He said they sought advice from the city attorney but never received a response.

“Because of this we decided not to formally take a side and get involved in what was now being litigated,” Van Horst said.