SD City Council denies appeal, grants permits to Del Mar Heights rebuild

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

The San Diego City Council unanimously denied an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval of the Del Mar Heights rebuild, granting the necessary permits for the project to keep moving forward.

Save the Field, which has sued the district over its environmental review of the project, filed the appeal to city council. Representing Save the Field, Attorney Ted Griswold of Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch, said the appeal challenged the city’s findings regarding wildfire safety (both with evacuation routes and defensible space), the loss of recreation space and park land, and the impact on the neighboring Torrey Pines Reserve. Griswold also argued that the rebuild is too oversized for a community that is seeing declining enrollment.

“Save our Field is not against the school rebuild project, it just needs to be done in a more appropriate way and with appropriate environmental review, which has not occurred,” Griswold said.

Ahead of the Jan. 11 meeting, council had received 163 emails in support of the rebuild and six opposed. An additional 20 people, including a few young Heights students, provided public comment during the Zoom meeting, both those in favor of the rebuild and those in favor of Save the Field’s appeal.

District 1 Councilmember Joe LaCava said he appreciated all of the public comment received but that he did not hear any new information that hadn’t been considered by city staff or the planning commission. He moved to deny the appeal and affirm the commission’s decision to grant the permits.

“I find that the staff has adequately and appropriately resolved the issues,” LaCava said. “I find that the staff’s responses to the appeal issues were compelling and more than adequate and despite a compelling testimony by the appellant I respectfully disagree with the items mentioned—many of them diverged away from the item in front of us today.”

The 60-year-old campus at the end of Boquita Drive, with its 13 aging portables, is planned to be demolished and a new school built in its place that addresses traffic congestion on neighborhood streets with an expanded parking lot with room for cars to queue. Chris Delehanty, the district’s executive director of capital programs, said that the school was designed with the reserve in mind and avoided two-story buildings to preserve neighbor views.

To address fire safety, they are adding four fire hydrants (there is currently one), improved emergency vehicle access, classroom buildings that are up to code with ignition-resistant construction and fire sprinklers, and have moved structures further away from the canyon’s edge. In the reserve, the district will repair failing stormwater outfalls and have agreed to revegetate with landscaping materials that exclude invasive plant species.

The rebuild does result in less playing field space on the ocean-view field, however, the district believes its plan provides sufficient playing field space for multiple uses as well as 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.

In her comments, Del Mar Union School District board President Erica Halpern said she hoped the city council decision would clear the roadblocks put up by Save the Field over the last year and a half.

“It is beyond disappointing that these folks have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to stop or delay the reconstruction of our neighborhood school,” Halpern said. “Our kids should have returned to the rebuilt school this past fall but instead we are burning through our facilities bond fund to pay for lawyers and cost escalations. The delay has already cost taxpayers more than $5 million.”

Once the permits have been secured, the district will update its construction timeline for the new Heights. Heights students remain split between Ocean Air and Del Mar Hills Academy.

“Save The Field remains committed to our belief that the modernization alternative and multi-use recreation fields can peacefully co-exist as the best approach for our entire community. We understand that the San Diego City Council was not interested in actively engaging to help facilitate that approach,” said Save the Field spokesperson Rick Schloss in a statement. “Unfortunately, differing opinions among stakeholders have not been respected and our pleas for a fair community debate have elicited personal attacks and silenced concerned voices who fear retribution. Save The Field has consistently supported a right-sized, safe school and safe community, and we are disappointed that DMUSD is unwilling to find that common ground.”