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Design review group outlines preliminary issues

DEL Mar — Following a quarterly report to the City Council at the Feb. 16 meeting, a group tasked with potentially recommending modifications to the design review process received a green light to move forward with efforts to address some preliminary issues that could be solved in the short term.

The ad hoc Development Review Process Citizens Advisory Committee has also created subcommittees that will continue to identify other problems that likely will require more time to solve.

The group has listened to comments from about 100 people during the 14 meetings that have been held since it was created in June 2015.

Chairman Harold Feder said there were nine recurring observations that led the committee to believe there is a need for more education, transparency and objectivity when it comes to the design review process.

“These are all procedural,” Feder said. “None of these involve substantive issues.”

In terms of education he said the problem lies with the public’s lack of understanding of what their rights are, how the process works and what is and isn’t allowed.

Possible solutions included creating a neighborhood guidebook or using an ombudsman, such as a former Design Review Board member, to provide guidance and support to the neighborhood in contentious situations or during communication breakdowns between neighbors.

Another problem area is the design review section of the city website, which some residents said is not user friendly and should include expanded functionality, visual enhancements and project tracking.

Feder also said most residents who spoke agreed the DRB process doesn’t allow enough time for adequate review, especially after story poles are installed. The result is often last-minute complaints “which every applicant does not like.”

There were complaints that the process needs less subjectivity.

“We heard ad nauseam through these hearings about the need for objectivity,” Feder said, adding that it is a difficult problem to solve. “But other jurisdictions have dealt with it successfully and we would like to take a shot at it because it seems to be a theme that everybody has concerns about.”

Feder said some residents believe the submittal requirements lack consistency or standardization.

“We want everybody to know what the project is going to look like, and it benefits everybody because … if you’ve got problems with it you can voice your problems early on,” he said. “If you’re the applicant … you don’t want to hear about (problems) two days before or at a DRB hearing.”

There were concerns that DRB deliberations do not stay focused on the design review ordinance, and the Community Participation Program needs to foster better communication and open dialogue between applicants and their neighbors.

“I believe, listening to the testimony, that the CPP process is appropriate and helpful, but I think there are a lot of ways that we can improve the process,” Feder said. “We believe we can make some inroads in this.”

Residents said DRB members could benefit from improved training and continuing education. Finally, some people said the city should capitalize on the expertise of former DRB members and the ex-officio member.

“We’re going to work on solutions to these problems to see if we can come up with something that appeals to most people,” Feder said.

Meanwhile the subcommittees will analyze other problems, hopefully narrow and limit them and report back in a few months for direction.

The smaller groups will focus on the CPP process, the design review ordinance, related development rules, zoning codes and research.

Members of a group called Moving Del Mar Forward who describe themselves as “residents who support positive change, reflective of the Community Plan, and in the best interest of the Del Mar community,” agreed with most of the identified problems.

But they said the issues should not be dealt with piecemeal. The committee, which they have consistently criticized as being stacked with slow- or no-growth proponents, should first identify all problems and then seek solutions.

“Rather than identifying a couple of ‘low hanging fruit’ problems here or there at this point and then working on some solutions, we think the better approach is to allow the Ad Hoc to complete its Phase 1 objective — identify all of the problems with the design approval process,” they wrote in a memo.

“Working on a couple of ‘low hanging fruit’ problems at this time will serve little purpose until the entire picture is made clear, and posing solutions to potential problems before reviewing each problem/solution in context to the whole could have unintended consequences,” the memo stated.

“The Ad Hoc Committee is at this time perhaps the most important committee in Del Mar because it will make recommendations regarding changes to the DRO that will have lasting implications to the City,” they added.

The group also requested that all meetings be recorded and more like interactive workshops.

Councilman Terry Sinnott said the “insightful” list of problems marked the end of the data collection.

Now is the time to analyze the problem from a root cause, he said. That will help you find the solutions. Find out what’s causing the problem, then generate the solutions based on that.

Councilman Dwight Worden said tackling the problems piecemeal could be a problem, but with a project this size the committee needs to start somewhere.

“It is all going to come back together at the end as one piece,” he said.

In an early meeting, council members said the number of meetings that can be recorded is limited by the city’s contract with Del Mar TV.