Del Mar OKs zoning change for homeless shelter

DEL MAR — Emergency shelters to accommodate the homeless have been added to the list of allowable uses in the north commercial zone. 

To comply with state law and satisfy one requirement of the approved housing element, council members unanimously agreed at the Oct. 21 meeting to change the zoning in that area of the city.

Although state law uses the term “emergency shelter,” the goal is to provide “housing with minimal supportive services for homeless persons that is limited to occupancy of six months or less.”

“It is … a little bit of a misnomer,” Planning Manager Adam Birnbaum said. “It’s not emergency shelters in terms of responding to catastrophic events and disasters. It really is aimed at dealing with people who are in a financial hardship.”

The proposal was first introduced at the Oct. 7 meeting, but council members and residents had questions and concerns.

They wanted to know if a 300-foot buffer between the hypothetical structures and homes could be increased to 500 feet and whether they could be located elsewhere in the city or on city-owned land instead.

Because much of Del Mar is zoned for residential uses, it was difficult to identify an area of the community where a 300-foot limitation could be applied without effectively prohibiting emergency shelters, the staff report states.

“With the number of residential zones sprinkled throughout our community and the overlapping of a 300-foot buffer, it really leaves a very limited area where you could create an ordinance that doesn’t, again, effectively prohibit the possibility of an emergency shelter,” Birnbaum said.

The north commercial zone was chosen because it is large enough to accommodate a shelter, is relatively isolated from residential zones, separated in most cases by a major roadway or the railroad right-of-way, and is located along a major traffic corridor.

Increasing the buffer to 500 feet would make it essentially impossible to find an area within the zone that would accommodate the facility, Birnbaum said.

In fact, a shelter would only fit in one area west of Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

The Public Works yard is in the floodway so building anything there is not allowed.

“It’s just flat out prohibited to have new development in that area,” Birnbaum said.

There was also a concern that such a facility could be built on vacant lots at the corner of Jimmy Durante and San Dieguito Drive.

Birnbaum said the 300-foot buffer precludes those sites from being used.

The homeless are defined as those in need of temporary or emergency shelter who lack a fixed income and regular nighttime residence. According to data in the city’s 2013-2021 housing element, there are 11 homeless people in the Del Mar area.

State law requires cities to identify at least one zone in which emergency shelters are allowed with no special use permit.

“While the city must identify a zone in which emergency shelters could be located, the accompanying ordinance language must not be so restrictive as to effectively prohibit somebody from carrying out and implementing an emergency shelter,” Birnbaum said.

But the facilities would still be subject to the same development standards that would apply to other projects, including design review, he added.

Although the city is required to have zoning in place to accommodate an emergency shelter, it is not required to build one.

“The likelihood that someone would actually devote expensive land in Del Mar to emergency shelters is relatively low, nonetheless we’re required by law to have an identification of an appropriate zone,” Birnbaum said.

To date, the city has not received any applications or inquiries.

According to the amendment, each facility could have a maximum of 10 beds, and the maximum stay would be six months, with a 60-day waiting period between stays.

The operator must have an operational plan, subject to approval by the planning director, that includes measures for on-site security.

Failure to amend the zoning could result in decertification of the housing element or legal action.

Birnbaum said the state Department of Housing and Community Development “watch(es) what we do in terms of our implementation of various programs that are contained within that housing element.”

The shelters could be used during a catastrophic event, but it’s unlikely they would provide the level of services needed, Birnbaum said.

In those circumstances, City Council could adopt emergency resolutions to respond to disaster needs, such as establishing locations and parameters for temporary shelters or triage centers.

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