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Del Mar, Winston School to enter mediation over lease disagreements

DEL MAR — The city of Del Mar is heading to mediation with its lessee, The Winston School, after both sides have failed to come to an agreed interpretation of a lease signed a decade ago.

The Winston School announced its intention to invoke the mediation clause of the lease last week after Del Mar has seemingly reached the end of its rope granting extensions to the deadline for planned updates to the school’s buildings as required by the original lease.

“Let’s just say we have different interpretations of the lease terms and that’s why we’ll be going to mediation to ask for an outside party to help us move this forward,” Laura Cunitz, president of The Winston School’s board, told The Coast News.

The property was originally owned by the Del Mar Union School District who leased it to The Winston School since 1988 but was sold to the city of Del Mar in 2010 for $8 million, $3 million of which was fundraised by The Winston School who then signed a new 10-year lease with the city.

The Winston School is a small non-public school that educates around 100-120 students in grades 6-12 and specializes in students who learn better in a smaller environment such as those with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD and other learning disabilities.

As part of the 2010 lease, The Winston School agreed to come up with plans for renovations for the school buildings, four of which were built in the 1940s. In December 2019, the city of Del Mar agreed to extend the deadline for the plans.

In June of 2020, the city issued a notice to the school that they were in default of the lease.

“And we got back to them and said that we can’t be in default of the lease because the lease protects the lessee from acts of God that we cannot control and it even lists in there, ‘pandemic,’” Cunitz said. “So our point was you can’t hold these deadlines for redevelopment because we are protected by the lease, we also did submit completely new plans.”

Since then the city has extended deadlines for The Winston School, most recently a 45-day extension in May of this year.

Cunitz says that due to the pandemic, they are unsure exactly how to submit plans without knowing what future health and safety regulations could be following COVID-19.

“As COVID changes and we all figure out how to deal with it, we’re not quite sure what the final regulations will be and what we should build into our plans,” Cunitz said.

One of the requirements that the city is looking for in new plans is at least 34 parking spaces on the school property. The school currently has 25 spaces on their property while also using an adjacent parking lot as allowed by the lease.

The city is now requiring the school to have all 34 spaces on its property.

“The problem with that is that in order to fit the extra parking on our school site we would have to put it in a place that would be disruptive to the neighbors by forcing us to rip out our garden and the neighbors would be looking at just busses and cars,” Cunitz said.

Cunitz says based on responses from the city’s Citizens’ Participation Program the school knows the neighbors do not want that.

“Believe it or not, we’ve been there for 30 years and our neighbors actually love us. It’s unheard for neighbors to like having a school next door so we are blessed by our neighbors,” Cunitz said.

Mayor Terry Gaasterland says the number of spaces needed was determined by The Winston School themselves which is not how the city normally determines the parking requirement for businesses in the city. Gaasterland told The Coast News it is essential for the school to have adequate parking to keep overflow off of the residential streets.

“Imagine if they had half the spaces they need every single day, then we’d have a problem. Because now they need to use parking in the neighborhoods and that’s exactly why Del Mar’s ordinances require businesses to provide a certain amount of parking,” Gaasterland told The Coast News.

Del Mar discussed the current situation in the closed session portion of its city council meeting this week and The Winston School is expecting to hear back from them regarding their mediation request by Wednesday.