Settlement agreement reached between Grand Del Mar and City of San Diego over land use/development violations

By Joe Tash

An agreement between the City of San Diego and the Grand Del Mar Resort in Carmel Valley is intended to settle violations of city land use and development rules by the resort dating back a decade.

The agreement was finalized on Jan. 8, four days after the city filed a lawsuit seeking to force the resort to comply with city regulations for a number of unauthorized developments on the resort property, including expansion of the resort’s golf course, equestrian trails, an equestrian stable, parking lots, a nightclub and a concrete pad for landing helicopters.

According to the city’s lawsuit, all of the improvements were done without obtaining city permits. City inspectors also determined that some of the resort’s grading and construction activity “impacted wetlands, steep hillsides, open space areas, mitigation areas, property containing potential historic resources and removed sensitive biological resources.”

The $300 million resort at 5300 Grand Del Mar Way is owned by developer Doug Manchester, who also owns the U-T San Diego and North County Times newspapers. The 249-room resort opened in October 2007, and has earned prestigious five-star ratings for its hotel, spa and signature restaurant.

Under the agreement, which was signed by Deputy City Attorney Danna W. Nicholas, Manchester and two other resort representatives, the resort will begin processing applications for permits for all of its unauthorized developments, which will include presentations before the Carmel Valley and Del Mar Mesa community planning groups.

The resort also has agreed not to use the helipad, horse trails, equestrian center and horse corrals until the proper permits are obtained. In addition, the resort will pay the city investigative costs of $12,456 and civil penalties of $75,000.

The agreement states that additional civil penalties of $600,000 will be “stayed pending successful and timely compliance with the terms and conditions of this stipulation.” If the resort fails to comply with any of the terms of the agreement, the document states, the resort will pay penalties of $2,500 per day that violations occur.

Another provision of the agreement requires the resort to complete 150 hours of community volunteer work for a charity or nonprofit.

Members of the local planning groups, which advise the San Diego City Council on land-use issues, praised the settlement, but questioned why the resort was allowed to break the city’s development rules for so long.

“We are upset. We feel the rules aren’t being applied fairly to everyone in that some people feel maybe they don’t have to go through the normal process everyone else does. We are relieved to see the city is addressing this in a serious way, and looking forward to taking part in process and getting the violations rectified,” said Gary Levitt, chairman of the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Group.

Anne Harvey, a member of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Group, who also sat on the Del Mar Mesa board in the past, said the original owners of the resort promised to build the golf course in a way that protected sensitive habitat areas and maintained wildlife corridors.

Those promises convinced the community groups to support the proposed resort when it went before city voters, Harvey said. But after voters approved the resort, she said, the golf course was expanded into sensitive habitat areas.

“Then they made liars out of us,” she said.

The city and the resort reached a settlement on the original golf course land-use violations which included a $250,000 payment to go toward improvement of trails in Carmel Valley and Del Mar Mesa, Harvey said. But the settlement was never finalized, and later the resort property changed hands several times before it was purchased by Manchester.

Perry Dealy, a resort consultant who also worked for the resort when it was constructed, said the Grand Del Mar has already submitted plans for bringing the entire property into compliance with city codes, and the application is under review by the city.

“We’ve just entered into the agreement, we’re looking forward not backwards. We’ve all agreed to a timeline and to go through a public process to get these approvals.” Dealy said.

While the process will involve planning group presentations, he was not sure if the application will go before the San Diego City Council or Planning Commission.

The resort has committed to obtain permits for all future developments, although he said there are no current plans for resort expansion beyond obtaining approvals for the work already completed.

Among the allegations in the city’s lawsuit are that the resort conducted unauthorized grading, did plumbing and electrical work without proper permits, constructed a nightclub that operated without required police/vice permits or alcohol permit, and built the helipad in violation of state, city and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Responding to criticism that the resort did not follow development rules, Dealy said, “I don’t think anything was done intentionally or out of context of the original intent of building a world-class resort.”

Very few resorts achieve 15 stars for their facilities, he said. “There’s only a couple in the United States that have that designation. And it draws people from all over the world. It’s great for the community and great for the region to have a development of that character.

“We’re motivated like the community is to get all of this resolved amicably going forward and to work with the city in a positive spirit of cooperation,” he said.