DEL MAR — After nearly 10 years of back-and-forth with Del Mar officials and strong local resistance to increased density, the residential Watermark project slated for the corner of Jimmy Durante Boulevard and San Dieguito Drive is bypassing the local discretionary process and moving forward under a by-right application.
The proposed project, managed by San Dieguito Land Partners and Kitchell Corp. in a partnership called Watermark DM LP, has gone through several iterations since 2013, with the current proposal featuring a four-story, 50-unit design spanning 2.3 acres of the main level of the lot.
City officials now have until April 19 to grant final approval for Watermark’s administrative coastal development permit, which will then be sent to the California Coastal Commission for an appeal period. In the meantime, absent from the usual public hearing process, officials are sharing information with the public via an online information page.
The by-right process enabled by Senate Bill 330 allows qualifying housing projects to move forward by eliminating the typical local discretionary processes, and instead requires jurisdictions to determine a project’s eligibility based on objective criteria related to zoning and other factors.
“Since it’s a by-right project, it’s been difficult. It’s not our standard discretionary process; the public cannot come and weigh in,” City Manager Ashley Jones told the City Council at their April 4 meeting. “We have requested, and we’re hopeful [Watermark] will agree to, host a public meeting where the public can listen in, but we don’t have confirmation about whether they’re willing to do that.”
Watermark DM LP did not respond to requests for comment about the development or a potential public meeting in time for publication.
The development is set to be the largest yet in San Diego County’s smallest city of around 4,200 people, which has historically struggled to meet state-mandated affordable housing requirements.
‘Not a typical process’
Between 2014 and 2020, Watermark DM LP worked with the city to develop a specific plan application for the 2.3-acre site in the north commercial zone to pave the way for their development. Among the hoops to jump through was approval from the city’s Design Review Board, as well as coastal and floodplain development, conditional use and land conservation permits.
Watermark DM LP first advised the city in an October 2020 letter that it would withdraw its Watermark Specific Plan application and instead pursue the by-right process, stating that they had little faith in the city’s ability to move their project forward in a timely manner.
This came a month after the state determined the city to be out of compliance with state California Housing Element law, noting that the city had long passed deadlines to rezone area 2G, where the development site is located, to allow by-right residential development at 20 to 25 units per acre, along with other missed requirements.
“To date, we have not felt the city has appropriately facilitated compliance with the Housing Element requirements and instead has simply hoped that we would carry the ball forward entirely on our own,” Watermark DM LP said in the 2020 letter.
The council eventually voted to rezone the area in the following months in order to avoid penalties by the state, and Watermark submitted a formal administrative coastal development permit application for the project in April 2021.
Over the following months, the application would be sent back and forth with the city several times as developers addressed deficiencies identified by the city that rendered their application incomplete.
After determining the application to be complete on Feb. 18, the Planning and Community Development Department initiated a review of all application materials, to be followed by final approval of the permit by April 19.
“It’s in a pretty straightforward timeline at this point,” said Del Mar principal planner Matt Bator. “It’s not a typical process for Del Mar … this is our first by-right project and first housing project.”
If approved, the city must notify all residents living within 100 feet of the project site – used for decades as a parking area for nearby fair and racetrack events – and those owning property within 300 feet. The decision is then subject to a 10-day appeal period with the Coastal Commission due to the project’s proximity to the San Dieguito Lagoon.
If an appeal of the project is submitted, the commission will schedule a hearing to decide whether the development poses a “substantial issue” in relation to the city’s Local Coastal Program (LCP) and the Coastal Act.
Del Mar resident and former Encinitas Mayor Pam Slater-Price said she expects there to be an appeal due to widespread opposition to the project, although any appeals must be related to potential violations of the LCP to be accepted.
“I know that people are going to be submitting letters, I know people are going to be testifying. I hope the Coastal Commission does their job and remembers their commitment,” Slater-Price said.
The current iteration of the project presents key differences from what was proposed in the past, with the developer requesting various concessions to local zoning requirements.
Developers originally proposed a 54-unit project when it was introduced in 2013, which was downsized to a 48-unit design including seven affordable units the following year. Subsequent community feedback resulted in the creation of a 38-unit option featuring six affordable units.
The current 50-unit proposal includes 10 lower-income units, with a variation of studios and one-, two- and three-bedroom units ranging from 580 to 2,541 square feet. The four stories would include three residential stories atop a podium parking garage holding 105 parking spots.
Past proposals included development on the nearby hillside, which also would have required the relocation of several Torrey pine trees. According to Bator, the new iteration of the project avoids this entire area but adds another story to the building.
However, Watermark DM LP also requested concessions under state bonus density law that would limit the wetland buffer from 100 feet to 50 feet and allow for up to 10% encroachment into steep slopes.
“There’s less coverage and it’s taller,” Bator said of the project layout. “Because of the wetland buffer of 50 feet that’s required, there’s really nowhere to go.”
Other requested concessions include increasing the maximum height from the local limit of 14 feet to around 47 feet, a change that is likely to interfere with scenic views of the adjacent bluffs.
“There are a lot of exceptions being made here,” Slater-Price said. “That’s very disappointing that the city has very little control. They are between a rock and a hard place at this point, and they are being forced to approve this.”
Lack of affordable housing
Despite resistance to the project, the need for affordable housing in the city has been made apparent. The city’s updated 6th Housing Element Cycle adopted at the end of 2021 outlines 175 units that must be built by 2029 to meet Regional Housing Need Assessment requirements.
According to the housing element, 22 of these units must be produced in the north commercial zone, where the Watermark project will be located.
The 10 “affordable” housing units in this project will help make a dent in that requirement, with two set aside for individuals considered extremely low income (making 30% or less of the area median income), two for very low income (less than 50% AMI) and six for low-income (less than 80% AMI).