DEL MAR – The long-awaited Del Mar Heights rebuild may hit a roadblock due to a recent lawsuit filed against the Del Mar Union School District.
Filed by local nonprofit Save the Field, the petition for a writ of mandate asserts that the district did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) in pursuing a rebuild of the 61-year old campus.
According to the document – filed by law firm Procopio — the district has not properly gauged the environmental impacts the project could have on the neighborhood, the surrounding nature reserve, and the school’s future students.
The Del Mar nonprofit filed the petition on June 12, a month after the district’s Board of Trustees approved a new plan for the district’s oldest school.
Developed by architects BakerNowicki, the $45-million project would eliminate the campus’s dilapidated portables, modernize its classrooms and nearly double the size of its parking lot, while still remaining a one-story structure. It now awaits final approval by the Division of the State Architect.
The district has been anticipating a completed project by the fall of 2021, which would allow students back on the new campus for the 2021-2022 school year. Construction is anticipated to begin in July.
The petition calls the district’s timetable for the project “ambitious,” and a potential motivator for “dispens(ing) with environmental concerns that could and should have been dealt with before significant amounts of money were spent on the Rebuild Project.”
The lawsuit cites impacts to the Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension, but many of the listed impacts pertain to the school’s neighboring street – Mira Montana. Such impacts range from potential glare and construction noise to increased vehicle emissions from queuing cars in the larger parking lot.
Two of the original officers of Save the Field—Kelley Huggett and Shana Khoury—live on Mira Montana. The street sits above the campus and has a direct westerly view over the school’s green field—a view that would partially change under the rebuild to include the new school’s expanded parking lot.
The loss of green space has long been the anchoring point of the organization’s opposition, though it is simply the tip of the iceberg of their charges against the district.
The petitioners also assert that the new design will impede emergency access to the school, arguing that the district must perform an emergency-access and fire access study.
“(The District) has no evidence that the proposed design of the Rebuild Project will not conflict with current emergency response plans and will not significantly increase the emergency response times of first responders,” the document states.
Save the Field asserts that in addition to impeding potential evacuation, the rebuild will “exacerbate wildfire risks and expose occupants and the nearby community to the uncontrolled spread of fire.”
The petition requests the district to pursue an environmental impact report—a CEQA document that addresses the significant environmental effects of public projects, ways to mitigate those effects, and any potential project alternatives.
In early 2020 the school completed a mitigated negative declaration (MND)—a CEQA document outlining how the project will mitigate impacts to the point of them becoming obsolete.
According to district staff, this process is routine when it comes to a rebuild, particularly one where the intensity of use does not increase. But for the project’s opposition—particularly Save the Field—the MND was, and isn’t, enough.
“(The MND) fails to state, or substantially understates the severity and scope of the Rebuild Project’s environmental impacts,” the petition states. “…As a result, the public and decision-makers cannot fully appreciate the consequences of the Rebuild Project’s approval.”
The legal action comes after months of accumulating conflict between the district and two local nonprofit groups, which initially formed with the express purpose of preserving the beloved elementary school’s large playing field in light of the rebuild.
The two nonprofits, Play Outside Del Mar and Save the Field, both incorporated in January after months of protesting a sizeable proposed cut in the school’s field size.
Initial concerns overplay space expanded over time—with the organizations shifting their focus to fire safety, traffic and other aforementioned factors in response to the district’s mitigated negative declaration, which came out in February.
In their March comments responding to the MND, the organizations urged the board to pursue an environmental impact report, as well as a coastal development permit, due to the school’s location in a Coastal Zone.
Save the Field’s letter was written by Procopio—which is now representing the organization in its legal action.
District staff and consultants asserted that an EIR wasn’t necessary, would delay the project and potentially cost the district up to $4 million. Teachers, students and supporters of the project pushed the district onward during several contentious Zoom board meetings.
In an effort to placate community concerns, the district hired an additional consultant to address concerns over the MND, who ultimately concluded that the new site would be safer and less congested than what currently exists. The architects also reviewed the site plan with the city’s fire marshal, and it was signed off by the Deputy Fire Marshall, according to the district’s executive director of capital programs & technology, Chris Delehanty.
The district moved forward with approving the project in May, with a unanimous vote from its board of trustees. This action was followed up weeks later with the lawsuit—and according to Delehanty, the district’s legal counsel is currently in discussions with Procopio over next steps.
“The District was very disappointed that Save the Field filed a lawsuit against the District to stop the Del Mar Heights Rebuild Project,” stated Delehanty in an email to The Coast News. “Save the Field selected the Procopio law firm which filed a similar lawsuit against the Cardiff School District, also on behalf of an organization of undisclosed members. They raise lots of issues with the goal of simply stopping the project.”
“No one can objectively look at the Rebuild Project and not see how it is an improvement to the existing school, addressing the existing deficiencies and creating a safer and updated learning environment,” the statement reads.
Delehanty cited the school’s rigorous outreach process, which began in early 2019 and included several workshops with over 400 attendees.
He pointed out that BakerNowicki, the project’s architect, made three changes to the original design to expand the field and satiate the park-related concerns of Save the Field and Play Outside Del Mar.
John Gartman, the chief executive officer of Play Outside Del Mar, said Play Outside has not, and will not take any part in legal action against the District.
Save the Field nor Procopio could not be reached for comment in time for publication.