DEL MAR — In an effort to increase local control over land use and zoning decisions, council members at the April 2 meeting agreed to move forward with a charter amendment. However, one caveat is other high-priority items can’t suffer and the additional work can’t be too burdensome on its already overtaxed staff.
Del Mar became a charter city when it incorporated in 1959. Mayor Dwight Worden said he believes the founders chose to do so because they wanted the ability impose admissions taxes on the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
“My informed speculation is in the late 1950s, you’re forming a new city,” he said. “It’s a handful of volunteers. … Probably a lawyer told them if you want to tax the fairgrounds, you’ve got to do it.”
“In 2000 the city got all tangled up in litigation and the ability to impose those admissions taxes was taken away by the courts,” he added.
Worden, a retired lawyer who once served as Del Mar’s city attorney, said the idea came to him while reading about other charter cities that did not have the same level of obligation to comply with certain details of state law.
The amendment “would reinsert into the charter that local control over land use and zoning that we voluntarily gave up in 1959,” Worden said.
“This could be important as Del Mar faces ever increasing state requirements on housing, zoning, land use, and other matters,” the staff report states. The change “would not create an exemption for Del Mar from all state laws, but it would give Del Mar a basis to assert more local control.”
Charters can affect several other city actions, from prevailing wages to how elections are run.
“This would not change any of that for us,” Worden said. “We’d still be a general law city under that. It would just be land use and zoning.”
The amendment would also include language that commits the city, as it has always done, to make land use and zoning decisions that are consistent with its community plan, Worden said.
Del Mar would also still have to comply with its state-certified housing element and the California Coastal Act.
“But in some cases, when you get down to regulatory detail, it might make a difference,” Worden said. “For example, when Coastal Commission was running us around about parking meters in North Beach and whether we could close the beach or not, it might give us a little leg up to say we’re a charter law city, and that’s a traditional local control issue that you’d have to lay your hands off.”
The three residents who weighed in had concerns. Former County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and her husband, Hershell Price, were skeptical until Worden confirmed there would be a requirement that ordinances must be consistent with the community plan.
Laura DeMarco said there could be a potential conflict of interest because Worden, who would write the amendment that requires voter approval, will likely be on the November ballot running for re-election.
In addition to not being on council’s list of priority projects, she also noted the estimated $8,000 to $12,000 cost is not included in the current budget.
Additionally, she questioned the purpose and timing.
She said the amendment could allow the city to rezone property that conflicts with the community plan, such as the multifamily Watermark Del Mar and a proposed blufftop resort in the north end of the city.
Because they are zoned commercial and low-density residential, respectively, the proposed uses are currently allowed.
She also voiced concern that the move might be a “back door to reinforce (an) interpretation of the community plan on the short-term rental issue to strengthen, potentially, the city’s case in court.”
DeMarco has long been an advocate of vacation rentals, which the majority of the council recently restricted.
“Why now?” she asked. “What’s the real intent, because the housing issue has been going on a long time?”
“This wasn’t necessarily a sense of urgency,” said Councilwoman Ellie Haviland, who worked with Worden on the amendment. “It was a sense of opportunity with the election coming.
“It’s not that we’re trying to get out of … state mandates that are important,” she added. “This is about taking the opportunity to have possibly more say over our zoning and to have more local control.
“We couldn’t, honestly, come up with a scenario where someone would be opposed to enforcing the community plan and having more control over what goes on in our city,” Haviland said. “That was really the impetus.”
“The mere fact that the public can vote on it is enough for me,” Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said. “The public will make the decision for us.”
Because it will require about 85 to 100 hours of additional staff time, council members opted to decide during their April 30 priorities discussion whether to continue moving forward with the changes.
“I think it makes sense for us to do,” Councilman Dave Druker said. “The question is timing — whether we should be doing this this election cycle or the next election cycle. We haven’t talked about what we aren’t going to be doing because we do this.
“I would rather figure out how to permit temporary storage bins/dumpsters,” he added.
“I am sensitive to jumping priorities,” Worden said. “That wasn’t my intention. I didn’t realize it was going to be 100 hours of time.”