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Efforts to improve DRB process move forward

DEL MAR — In an ongoing effort to improve design review procedures, council members at the June 6 meeting approved the adoption of two handbooks that will help participants navigate and understand the process.

But they stopped short of agreeing to make immediate changes to the Citizens’ Participation Program, a policy that was permanently adopted in 2012 to help streamline the design review process, reduce costs and avoid conflicts between residents.

The recommendations were made by a nine-member ad hoc committee created last year to address the impact some recent residential construction is having on community character.

The goal of the handbooks and CPP revisions is to “frontload” the process, giving all stakeholders a chance from the get-go to understand a proposed project.

For the applicant, that means being upfront with no “gaming the system.”

It obligates the neighbors to participate early, communicate clearly and not come into the process late with complaints.

The community guide to understanding the design review process will offer a concise, step-by-step overview in laymen’s terms.

The contents, as proposed by the committee, will include the reason Del Mar has a design review process, the applicable ordinances, the required permits, examples of a denied project and resolutions.

The good-neighbor handbook will be created to help residents communicate better and deal with conflict in a constructive way.

Its contents will explain what neighbors should do when they learn about a proposed project, what applicants should do before completing their design, some good-neighbor principles and tips regarding view blockage, minimizing construction impacts, managing conflict and holding a successful neighborhood meeting.

According to a report outlining proposed revisions to the CPP, the ad hoc committee concluded the process has many strong elements but needs to be followed by applicants and neighbors and monitored by the city.

It is “fraught with animosity and fails to promote friendliness among neighbors,” the report states. “It is our finding that some changes could be made to make the process more fair and transparent in order to facilitate understanding among all parties.”

The committee recommended a pre-CPP meeting that would take place before plans are created or story poles are erected.

It would be a chance for more open, informal communication between the project applicants or their representatives and neighbors who live within 300 feet of the proposed project.

Following that gathering a formal CPP meeting would be scheduled that would include a description of the project, a copy of the most recent preliminary plans, 3-D modeling/imaging, story poles with mesh to better represent volume and massing and a two-dimensional streetscape to show neighborhood compatibility.

The committee also recommended that the second meeting be posted on the city website and noticed publicly citywide to eblast subscribers.

The committee’s final proposal is to have a volunteer ombudsperson, such as a former Design Review Board or Planning Commission member, present at the second meeting to educate those present on the process, but not to advocate any particular point of view.

The person would act as a neutral observer to ensure the proceedings of the CPP are accurately represented, recorded and distributed.

Council members said they support the two-step CPP process.

“The sooner the people start talking the better,” Councilman Terry Sinnott said.

But they had concerns about many of the other recommended changes, including the cost for applicants to produce some of the required materials at the second meeting.

Councilman Don Mosier said he was having a hard time trying to envision where one would find “an unbiased neutral party in Del Mar” to serve as the ombudsperson.

“It’s thankless because you can’t express any opinions,” he said, adding that the expectations of the positions were too vague.

Mayor Sherryl Parks agreed.

“The ombudsman issue is a little bit ambiguous so that needs to be crisped up a little bit,” she said.

Sinnott said he had concerns about citywide notifications for the second CPP.

“I think we’re getting into a real problem with going way out into the community and saying, ‘OK everybody can … comment on this home,’” Sinnott said.

With Dwight Worden absent council voted 4-0 to adopt the teaching manuals once they are approved by the city attorney.

Parks asked that a section be added urging property owners to attend the CPP meetings.

“Too many times I’ve been to these CPPs and it’s the architect,” she said. “The spirit of the CPP is for the homeowner to get a sense of who (their) neighbors are and what they want. We’re missing that when they’re … somewhere else.”

CPP changes must be implemented by ordinance. Staff will explore the role of ombudsman, address other concerns raised by council members and bring back some proposed ordinance language for council discussion at a future meeting.