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Del Mar Heights rebuild plan
A rendering depicts a proposed rebuild of Del Mar Heights. Graphic courtesy of BakerNowicki Design
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After years of delays, Del Mar Heights rebuild gets final approval

DEL MAR — The San Diego City Council unanimously denied a group’s appeal seeking to halt the Del Mar Heights rebuild project, choosing instead to grant the necessary permits for the project to move forward.

Since 2019, the Del Mar Union School District has planned to demolish and rebuild its 61-year-old Del Mar Heights K-6 campus, using Measure MM bonds approved in 2018. The district intends to construct one-story facilities and an expanded parking lot with a new drop-off/pick-up lane, including on part of the existing playing field, reducing the field’s size.

A group of community members called Save the Field has been trying to stop the school district’s project since June 2020 when they filed a lawsuit calling for the preservation and protection of the open spaces within the school district’s boundaries.

In the legal filing, Save the Field outlined a number of complaints, including fire safety, vehicle emissions, light glare, habitat preservation, mitigating asbestos and other chemicals, stormwater outfall pipes, and construction and operational noise.

In December 2020, Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil temporarily halted the Del Mar school district’s rebuild plans in a Dec. 22 ruling, ordering the district to reevaluate certain aspects of its project. Wohlfiel dismissed most of the group’s complaints, including those relating to field size, as previously reported by The Coast News.

“The impact associated with community recreational use is insignificant,” Wohlfeil wrote in his ruling. “Although the rebuild project will result in changes, these changes are not significant for purposes of a CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] analysis. [Save the Field] fails to cite to any evidence within the record (e.g., comments from residents) demonstrating otherwise.”

Wohlfiel also said there was “no demonstrated potential for a significant impact related to wildfire and emergency/fire access.”

However, Wohlfeil sided with Save the Field on three counts, agreeing the district failed adequately to study how to mitigate potential (1) construction noise, (2) added traffic to an adjacent residential street, and (3) environmental impacts to the coastal habitat.

In February 2021, the school board directed staff to work with an environmental consultant to prepare an environmental impact report, or EIR, to comply with Wohfiel’s ruling.

More appeals, more denials  

In the City of San Diego, Save the Field most recently appealed the Planning Commission’s unanimous approval of the Del Mar Heights rebuild project in October 2021. The decision went before the San Diego City Council earlier this week where the group’s appeal was denied.

The new design for Del Mar Heights will aim to address traffic congestion and utilize one-story buildings to lessen the impact on surrounding homeowners’ views.

Opponents of the project, however, are still concerned about wildfire safety, impacts of the rebuild on the neighboring Torrey Pines Reserve and loss of community recreation space.

Ted Griswold, a San Diego attorney who was representing Save the Field, said that the project is also lacking an appropriate environmental review.

According to the city staff report, however, the Del Mar Union School District properly executed an Environmental Impact Report and demonstrated compliance with the city’s Climate Action Plan.

“The new buildings will be constructed under the current California Green Building Standards Code as required by the Division of the State Architect (DSA) and will include fire-rated buildings, fire sprinkler systems, three additional fire hydrants, and fire access throughout the site for emergency vehicles,” said the staff report.

“The project provides the required buffer area and moves buildings further from the edge of the western slope that separates the site from the Torrey Pines Reserve Extension,” the staff report continued.

The council received more than 160 public comments via email in support of the rebuild, and six emails opposed to the rebuild. They also heard several public comments via Zoom, including one from Del Mar Union School District Board President Erica Halpern.

“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,” Halpern said. “It’s past time to move forward.”

Councilmember Joe LaCava, whose district includes the Del Mar Union School District, moved to deny the appeal and grant the permits necessary to move the project forward.

“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.”

Del Mar Heights was supposed to reopen for the 2021-22 school year with the original schedule, but the project has now been delayed for a year and a half. The new schedule has not yet been determined.