Solana Beach voters will have their say on Fletcher Cove Community Center use policy

By Kristina Houck

After more than two years of debate between Solana Beach residents who want to rent Fletcher Cove Community Center for private events and community members who fear adverse impacts from parties, the divisive issue is headed to the ballot.

The Solana Beach City Council on Nov. 6 had to decide whether to adopt a use policy they don’t support or spend about $200,000 on a special election. Council members unanimously voted to call a special election for Feb. 11, 2014, allowing voters to have their say on a use policy for the facility. Deputy Mayor Thomas Campbell, who was on vacation, participated in the meeting by phone.

“What’s most fair to all parties involved — the petitioners, the neighbors and the people who signed the petition — is to follow this process, let everybody have their voice and let’s hear the outcome,” said Councilman David Zito, who noted this is the city’s seventh qualified citizen petition in 18 years.

After months of debate and negotiations, the council on Aug. 28 adopted a use policy for the facility, which overlooks the ocean at 133 Pacific Ave. Introduced during a special meeting Aug. 7, the policy permits no more than one private party rental at $50 per hour with a two-hour minimum every other weekend during the trial period, which ends Dec. 28, 2014. No more than 50 guests are allowed at events, which require a security guard. Beer and wine can be served, but there is a two-drink limit per guest, and a trained host is required.

Members of the Friends of the Fletcher Cove Community Center wanted a less restrictive policy, so the group filed a voter initiative with the city on Aug. 27 to remove regulations from the site. The initiative would allow up to two parties every weekend, with as many as 100 guests at events, and alcohol limited only by state Alcohol Beverage Control rules.

The group, which originally launched its initiative after council members tabled the matter in June, had to collect 1,311 valid signatures from Solana Beach voters within 180 days to prompt a special election on the measure. In about a month, paid workers and volunteers collected more than 2,000 signatures, said Solana Beach resident Mary Jane Boyd, who backed the initiative along with former Solana Beach Mayor Thomas Golich and resident James Nelson.

In a letter addressed to the city clerk on July 9, 2013, Boyd, Golich and Nelson requested that a special election “be called and scheduled for the earliest possible date after the qualification of this initiative.”

Nevertheless, Boyd and other initiative supporters urged council members during the meeting to adopt the initiative to avoid a special election.

“Calling a special election at the cost of $200,000 is a decision that the City Council will be totally responsible for. And although there is a concerted effort to put a different spin on it, only the council can be held responsible,” Boyd said. “The people who signed the petition are clear about what it says and we all understand you have a choice: adopt the initiative or immediately submit it to the voters and let them decide.

“So much time and energy has been wasted on this issue. Let’s not waste $200,000 for no explicable reason.”

Solana Beach resident Bruce Berend recalled a celebration he hosted at the community center in 1995. At the time, the building was used for private functions before it fell into disrepair.

“Several people in this room would attest it was a very nice party,” Berend said. “It couldn’t come close to being replicated under the restrictions of the current so-called compromise policy.”

Since the $350,000 renovation of the 1,100-square-foot center was completed in 2011, some residents, like Berend, have asked to once again use the facility for parties. After all, community members contributed around $225,000 to the project. Other residents, however, have expressed concerns about noise, traffic, parking and public safety.

The petition circulated by the Friends of the Fletcher Cove Community Center was certified on Sept. 25, after the San Diego County Registrar of Voters verified a sufficient number of signatures. It was presented to the council along with the council’s options at the Oct. 9 meeting, when council members ordered staff to prepare a report outlining potential impacts the proposed initiative could have on the city. The council received the report on Nov. 6.

If the group waited about a week to file the petition, the measure could have been included in the June 2014 primary election, which would have cost $10,000 to $15,000. The petition missed the deadline for the June election by four days, however, according to the staff report.

Although Boyd has said her group was not aware of the timeline, council members and some members of the public believe the group intentionally submitted their signatures early to trigger a special election.

“Right now, the sponsors of the party policy are engaged in some serious political backpedaling,” said Solana Beach resident Kelly Harless, a member of the Friends of Fletcher Cove, a community group she said formed out of concern about misinformation being spread to the community. “Even though they asked for a special election in their notice of intent, gathered signatures for an election and turned in their signatures early enough to ensure a special election, they are steadfastly campaigning against the very election they orchestrated.”

If adopted, the initiative could only be modified by a public vote. Therefore, Harless and other initiative opponents asked council members not to adopt the use policy, and instead, move forward with a special election.

“I urge you, as city council members, to preserve your ability to govern this great city of ours. I’m sad — I’m mad that there are those of us who want to bring Washington-style gotcha politics to Solana Beach,” said Solana Beach resident Gordon Johns, who also encouraged citizens to get informed and go to the polls.

“Let’s not back away from the fight. Let’s have everybody fully informed about what the issue is. The issue is democracy and whether Solana Beach is for sale.”

The 1,311 signatures gathered represent 15 percent of registered voters in the city. Mayor Mike Nichols said the other 85 percent should have an opportunity to have their say.

“Fifteen percent of the people signed it. They were told they were going to get a vote on this,” Nichols said. “I think that other 85 percent’s voice needs to be heard.”

At the recommendation of the ad hoc committee, which included Zito and Councilwoman Lesa Heebner, the council decided not to submit a competing initiative for a community center use policy.

The council can write an argument for or against the initiative, which is due by 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 20. Rebuttals are due by 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 2.

“I support democracy, and I support letting people decide,” Nichols said. “Regardless of the outcome, we all need to move on and just live with it.”