DEL MAR — The approval process for the residential Watermark project planned for a vacant lot in Del Mar has stalled after residents filed appeals with the California Coastal Commission seeking to overturn the city’s approval of the project.
Slated for the corner of San Dieguito Drive and Jimmy Durante Boulevard, the Watermark project proposes a four-story, 50-unit apartment building — including 10 low-income units — spanning 2.3 acres of the main level of the vacant lot.
The project was submitted under the state’s by-right (or ministerial) approval process under Senate Bill 330, requiring the city to skip their usual discretionary approval steps and instead judge the project solely based on objective criteria related to zoning and other factors, with limited requirements for public participation.
After the city approved an administrative coastal development permit for the project on April 19, residents had a 10-day window to appeal the decision to the commission.
Del Mar Hillside Community Association and local resident Jill Schultz each submitted an appeal on May 9 arguing that the city unjustly granted waivers for development standards under the Local Coastal Program (LCP) and California Coastal Act intended to protect the sensitive local environment.
“Ms. Schulz is properly appealing this decision to the Coastal Commission and asks [that] the Commission take substantial issue with the City’s approval and hold a de novo hearing on the application for a coastal development permit,” San Diego environmental attorney Julie Hamilton said in her appeal filing on behalf of Schultz, a resident of the hillside that forms the backdrop of the project site.
The Coastal Commission will now schedule a hearing to consider whether the project complies with the LCP, with no date on the calendar yet.
Project applicant Watermark DM, LP, a partnership between San Dieguito Land Partners and Kitchell Corp., defended the project’s compliance with applicable requirements in a Thursday statement.
“During the past nine years, we have obtained extensive public and city staff input to craft a project that is beautiful, respectful of the environment, and consistent with applicable laws. We will continue this work with the Coastal Commission to balance Del Mar’s much-needed affordable housing with the resource protection mandates of the Coastal Act. We are confident this well-designed project will be an asset to the Del Mar community and set a standard for future multi-family development in the city,” Watermark DM LP said.
Del Mar City Attorney Ashley Jones declined to comment on the appeals and deferred to the city’s April 19 resolution approving the permit for Watermark. In the resolution, city staff said they granted waivers for several of the LCP requirements in order to fulfill affordable housing construction requirements from the state.
Under the city’s Housing Element, officials are required to bring forward 175 affordable housing units by 2029, including 22 in the north commercial zone where the Watermark project will be located.
The appellants, however, argue that the city’s obligations under the state’s by-right approval process do not supersede their responsibilities under the LCP, which include protecting the sensitive bluffs, the nearby San Dieguito Lagoon, and the plovers and egrets which nest in the Torrey pines on the hillside.
According to Hamilton, these competing obligations put the city in a difficult position.
“There is a balance that needs to be reached between protecting environmental resources and approving affordable housing,” she said. “We can’t just approve housing in a vacuum. We have to look at, when we’re approving this housing, is it good for the environment?”
From the city’s perspective, the exceptions to the LCP are all justified. According to the resolution, since at least 17% of the units in the project are designated as low-income, the project was allowed two concessions — increasing the lot coverage from 40% to 51% and reducing the wetlands buffer from 100 to 50 feet — under the State Density Bonus Law.
The city also claims that the density bonus law prohibits the city from applying development standards that would physically prevent the construction of the project and its affordable units. For this reason, the city granted additional concessions for 10% slope encroachment and increased the number of stories from two to four, the maximum floor area ratio from 0.3 to 1.29, and the height from 14 to around 46 feet.
Another concern from appellants is public access. The appeals note that the lot has historically been used for parking to access activities at the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds, the Coast to Crest Trail and the San Dieguito Lagoon.
“The significant loss of 15 years’ worth of public parking will hinder the public’s access, resulting in a violation of the California Coastal Act Public Access Provision,” the Del Mar Hillside Community Association’s appeal states.
Residents can find more information about the Watermark project and the appeals via the city of Del Mar’s online information page.