The Coast News Group
At the time the injunction was granted, the district had just completed demolition of the site in preparation for construction. Graphic courtesy of BakerNowicki Design
At the time the injunction was granted, the district had just completed demolition of the site in preparation for construction. Graphic courtesy of BakerNowicki Design
CitiesDel MarDel Mar FeaturedNews

Judge halts construction of Del Mar Heights school, again

DEL MAR — The long-awaited Del Mar Heights School rebuild hit another roadblock last month after a San Diego County Superior Court judge granted an injunction in an ongoing lawsuit by a local nonprofit claiming the project was not properly vetted for environmental and safety impacts.

Judge Katherine Bacal granted the injunction request from nonprofit Save the Field on May 12 as part of their lawsuit challenging the City of San Diego’s approval of a coastal development permit for the rebuild.

The group argued that the city did not comply with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements by relying on a vacated mitigated negative declaration and a focused environmental impact report, because it splits the environmental review into two documents.

“On May 12, 2022, Superior Court Judge Bacal found significant and serious flaws in the (Del Mar Union School District) plans and implementation for the rebuild of Del Mar Heights School. These environmental flaws were so severe that she issued an injunction to protect the environment from further destruction,” Save the Field spokesperson Rick Schloss said in a June 3 statement.

“DMUSD has consistently operated as if rules don’t apply to them. They ignored the facts, have dismissed community input and silenced critical environmental and safety concerns. Judge Bacal has taken affirmative steps to ensure that the environment and neighborhood are safe and protected.”

The Del Mar Union School District has been planning the $45 million rebuild of the 61-year-old school since 2019 using Measure MM bonds, with hopes of completing the project for the 2020-21 school year.

However, litigation by Save the Field has delayed its progress significantly, with the price tag for the project rising by around $6.1 million and a new completion date estimated for May 2023, frustrating district leaders and many Del Mar Heights families.

By the time the injunction was granted, the district had completed demolition of the site and begun grading, installing utilities and finishing up outfall repair work in the Torrey Pines State Reserve to protect against critical erosion.

Chris Delehanty, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, said Save the Field’s efforts are not truly focused on the environment, but an “ongoing, cynical and seemingly endless litigation to thwart this project.”

Delehanty added that the delay is harmful to Del Mar Heights’ student population, which has been divided between Del Mar Hills and Ocean Air School during the rebuild process.

“The delay is hurting our students by keeping them off campus and dividing their school. We have a school group that is not able to be together and this is going into our third year,” Delehanty told the district board of trustees on May 25. “This is not about CEQA, it is about people wanting to stop the district from building on a part of the campus that their houses overlook.”

This marks the second time the courts have stayed the rebuild process in the past two years. In December 2020, Superior Court judge Joel Wohlfeil granted an injunction in Save the Field’s separate lawsuit against the district, ordering the district to reevaluate elements of the project including construction noise, traffic increases and environmental impacts of the coastal habitat.

Delehanty noted that these concerns have been addressed by the district or are no longer relevant, and that the latest petition for injunction is simply an effort to stop the project from moving forward.

Since 2020, Save the Field’s protests against the rebuild have focused mainly on plans to expand a new parking lot onto the recreational fields, reducing available recreational space as a result. The nonprofit also claims that the current plans for a “one way in, one way out thoroughfare” and the lack of 100 feet of defensible space impedes safe evacuation in the high-wildfire-risk zone

They also criticized the district’s planned increased enrollment size of 550 students at the school despite dropping enrollment.

“The District must implement the Measure MM promise to rebuild, not redevelop a megaschool that wipes what little open space recreation exists in the community,” Schloss said. “Save The Field has always supported a safe, right-sized school that meets the needs of students, protects our environment, provides much-needed outdoor recreation space and allows for safe evacuation of students and the surrounding neighborhood.”

District leaders say that the city planning commission and city council, as well as the judge, have confirmed that the district’s plans adequately address the issue.

“The issues related to fire danger were considered by the district, the judge, the city’s planning commission, and the city council, all of whom considered the issue to have been adequately addressed by the district’s project,” Delehanty said.

Save the Field is required to post a $60,000 bond as a condition of the injunction. The bond amount was decided based on assertions from the district that delay damages will be $2,000 per day, with an estimated delay of 30 days.

Delehanty said district leaders plan to file an appeal of the injunction in order to allow construction to resume.

“We are hopeful that construction will commence again soon and we can look forward to the Del Mar Heights students returning to their campus to attend school in a new, state of the art learning facility,” Delehanty said.

The city of San Diego declined to comment on the injunction, citing ongoing litigation.