View Assessment Commission denies permits for Solana Highlands project

The proposed reconstruction of Solana Highlands took a step backward Oct. 20 when the city’s View Assessment Commission unanimously denied a development review permit and a structure development permit for the project.

Commissioners came to their decision after a two-day special meeting, in which they heard from a dozen community members who said the project would affect their views. Other residents who did not file view assessment claims also shared their concerns.

“Maybe this isn’t going to work,” said Commissioner Pat Coad at the end of the first day of comments. “Maybe you need to go back to the drawing board and start over again.”

H.G. Fenton Company, which purchased the property at South Nardo and Stevens avenues in 1998, has proposed to demolish and rebuild Solana Highlands, a complex of 196 apartments and four multifamily homes, built in 1972.

The project calls for 315,869 square feet of residential space, a 10,287-square-foot clubhouse and leasing office, 50,600 square feet of garage parking, 256,355 square feet of landscaping and 67,156 square feet of open space on the 13.4-acre site.

Plans include rebuilding the complex with 260 one- and two-bedroom apartments in 25 two- and three-story buildings. Thirty-two apartments would be affordable units. Plans also include 525 onsite parking spaces, including 253 garage spaces, a clubhouse and leasing office, and recreational amenities such as a pool.

The space is zoned high-density residential, which allows 13 to 20 units per acre. The plan proposes 18.69 units per acre.

City code limits the height to 30 feet. The maximum height of the project is 57.5 feet. The buildings now on the site are two stories tall, reaching to 25 feet, according to city staff.

To reduce what they described as the bulk and scale of the project, some residents suggested the company construct fewer buildings, reduce building heights, relocate buildings, downsize apartments and construct underground parking, among other ideas.

“This project blocks my views, destroys our neighborhood’s character, sets a horrible precedent and was undertaken without the slightest interest in minimizing view impairment per our city’s ordinance,” said Sylvia Stevens. “Please don’t reward Fenton’s brazen strategy of ignoring the character of our neighborhood and starting with the biggest project possible, only to make minor concessions and call them compromises.”

Stevens was one of 15 appellants, or people who filed view assessment claims, after story poles were installed June 15 on the site and a 30-day public notice was sent to residents within a 1,000-foot radius of the property.

The original deadline to file a claim was July 24, but the city extended that to Aug. 7, after a request from the community. Three of the 15 appellants have since withdrawn their claims. The claims stem from south of the project site at Del Mar Legends and Turfwood, north of the project site and east of the project site.

“The negative impact this will have on the value of my property is substantial,” said Stevens, who lives in the Del Mar Legends community. “The negative impact this will have on my quality of life is immeasurable.”

She added that Solana Beach “is not UTC or Mission Valley.”

“We love our green space, our open space and our unique situation,” she said. “To build an overscaled development that robs us of our views is unreasonable and against the ordinance.”

Appellant Ray Williams, also from Del Mar Legends, agreed. “It’s just going to be a junior Mission Valley,” he said. “These buildings are too big, too massive and totally out of scale for this neighborhood.”

Appellant Sherry Lynes couldn’t attend the meeting, but her three-page letter was read into the record. She asked that the buildings be set farther from the bluff and reduced to two stories.

“I strongly oppose the proposed height and proximity of this construction, as it will negatively affect every single view from every single window in my townhouse,” said Lynes, the owner of a condo in the Turfwood community.

“The imposing nature of the Solana Highlands project, both height-wise and proximity-wise, will greatly diminish, and in some cases, block my view that I so cherish,” she added. “Instead of looking at the sky and enjoying the late afternoon sunsets, I will be looking at a huge apartment building.”

Appellant Dana Flach said she bought her Turfwood condo more than 20 years ago because of the “beautiful views and open space.”

“My home is the closest to the proposed redevelopment project,” she said. “These buildings, as proposed, will tower over me, creating a wall of cement instead of any view I have now.”

Appellant John A. Wilson III, who lives north of the project site, said he would lose the primary view he’s enjoyed for 28 years if the project moved forward as proposed.

“Please protect our views and our neighborhood,” he said.

Tracy Stevens, daughter of Sylvia Stevens and also a resident of Del Mar Legends, said all claimants are “getting screwed.”

“This can’t possibly be the vision that we have for our city,” she said. “We’re all extremely disappointed in the process as presented by Fenton and hope that you can work to rectify it.”

In an email after the meeting, project manager John La Raia said H.G. Fenton Company respects the commission’s decision.

“We appreciate the time and care invested by the View Assessment Commissioners and respect the process that led to their decision,” he said.

Dating to October 2010, H.G. Fenton Company has held 20 community meetings and engaged with about 200 community members, including all view claimants, LaRaia said. He said the company submitted 4,000 letters, fliers, door hangers and emails to neighbors within a minimum 300-foot radius of the property, reaching more than 1,000 residents and property owners.

The company, LaRaia said, also offered to meet and discuss view issues with each claimant. Two refused to meet at their home, he said, and another claimant did not allow photos to be taken from his home.

LaRaia noted that the plans direct traffic away from the nearby single-family neighborhood with the proposed location of the main entrance. Two driveways are planned on South Nardo Avenue, with the main entrance closest to Stevens Avenue.

The project, he said, also increases the amount of onsite parking by 68 percent, compared with a 31 percent increase in residential units.

“Those were a couple things we heard initially when we met with neighbors in the community,” he said.

In response to the view assessment claims, the site plan has also been revised.

An additional two-story building was added to reduce the mass of another building on the site, LaRaia explained. And a unit was also added to the building just north of the new building as well as the leasing center to reduce another building, he said.

Still, claimants argued the applicant hasn’t done much to change their minds.

“The developer claims they have made some concessions,” Williams said. “We’ve seen over and over again they really haven’t given an inch.

“Nothing has been proposed that significantly alters the size and scope of the project. No buildings have been eliminated. No three-story buildings have been reduced in size except for a small corner. We implore you to look at the existing story poles. Nothing has really changed.”

LaRaia refuted claims about the density of the project. He said that the project does not maximize the site, as plans propose 260 units rather than the maximum of 278 units.

He also said that underground parking would be too costly. Shifting the buildings, he said, would hinder the site’s traffic circulation.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to make everybody 100 percent happy with this project,” LaRaia said.

“I don’t think you’ve made any of them happy,” Commissioner Coad said in response.

“We’re doing our best to plan a site that’s difficult to plan,” LaRaia responded.

Of the five commissioners, four visited the homes of every claimant before the meeting started. Commissioner Gary Garber, who was appointed to a vacant position in September, failed to visit two of the seven properties that were discussed on the first day.

“That is embarrassing to this committee and it’s embarrassing to you,” said resident Jim Ratzer, who previously served on the View Assessment Commission.

By the second day of the two-part meeting, Garber had visited Dana Flach’s residence. He volunteered to recuse himself from the discussion on the residence of Ray and Linda Williams because he was unable to visit their property. And at the request of his fellow commissioners, he also recused himself from the discussion on Flach’s residence, after it was noted he only saw her views from the outside of her home.

Commissioners denied the project because they not only found it impaired multiple views, but that it was incompatible with the neighborhood character.

“I cannot find that this project was designed and situated in such a manner to minimize view impairment. I find this for each one of the homes I visited,” Coad said. “I felt like the project itself as designed is, in fact, the view impairment.”

After more than seven hours, the View Assessment Commission denied the project in a 5-0 vote. With the commission’s advisory vote, the City Council will ultimately make the final decision on the project.