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Del Mar parcel
A view of Del Mar from the northern part of the North Commercial zone. In the foreground, a likely undevelopable vacant parcel owned by the North County Transit District. Photo by Dan Brendel
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Newly seated Del Mar City Council to revisit looming housing penalties

DEL MAR — The newly comprised Del Mar City Council received a Dec. 14 primer on affordable housing planning, which rehearsed oft-cited risks of running afoul of state housing law, teeing up likely controversial policy discussions in the New Year.

The city’s direction on housing policy has hung in limbo through election season and up to the present. Disagreements separated most council candidates, and not a few residents, into two distinct and as-of-yet irreconcilable camps. November’s election installed a handful of new councilmembers, decisively shifting the local legislature’s majority stance on past points of contention — namely, whether and where to allow increased residential density.

Councilman Dwight Worden remains the only member of the old majority, which voted in the fall to increase density in the city’s North Commercial area. Then-Councilwoman, now-Mayor Terry Gaasterland and Councilman Dave Druker unsuccessfully opposed that decision but twice blocked (Sept. 8 and Oct. 5) an accompanying General Plan amendment necessary to consummate the change.

They say the area is poorly suited for density. Gaasterland wants to negotiate some alternative with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), which implements state housing law. Freshmen Councilmembers Tracy Martinez and Dan Quirk have expressed views simpatico to Gaasterland’s and Druker’s.

The new council, scheduled to begin discussing policy specifics at their Jan. 11 meeting, must reach some agreement, with each other and HCD, before the April deadline to adopt a state-certified updated housing plan. Failure to do so risks state-imposed sanctions, such as rescindment of the city’s discretionary land use control and eligibility for certain state grants.

The loss of grants could jeopardize the city’s hope to strike a deal with the Del Mar Fairgrounds to put some of the city’s state-mandated affordable housing quota on Fairgrounds property.

“A certified [housing plan] is our primary key to getting grant money,” Planning Director Joseph Smith told council Monday. “If we don’t have grant funds to secure a [Fairgrounds] deal, the question to council will be, how do we pay for it.”

Adding another wrinkle, residents in November gathered enough signatures to call a referendum, hoping to overturn the past council’s North Commercial up-zoning decision. However, planning staff contends, lacking some realistic alternative, the city must up-zone these parcels in order to comply with state requirements.

“Repealing that ordinance would be a step in the wrong direction,” Smith said.

“Without North Commercial the city will be unable to meet its ‘adequate site’ requirements,” Principal Planner Amanda Lee said. “Adequate sites” mean those zoned to the minimum density the state considers suitable for affordable housing — 20 units per acre in Del Mar.

“Today, the city has no adequate zoning or affordable units that have been constructed,” Smith said. “This is largely the city’s track record that the state sees.”

Gaasterland, Martinez and Quirk helped gather signatures for the referendum.

“I still don’t believe” the city lacks any alternative but to up-zone North Commercial, Gaasterland said. She believes the city’s planning efforts so far have adhered too readily to the state’s “formulas,” rather than pressing HCD for alternatives suitable to Del Mar’s context.

She acknowledges state law requires up-zoning, if not in North Commercial, then somewhere else. But that requirement is “fundamentally, morally, ethically wrong, I’m not going to budge on that,” she said. “Laws are created and laws can be changed. … If we fail, and we may, and Del Mar is up-zoned by the state …, it’s not going to be because I did not try.”

“The staff is working on a zone amendment that does not allow for 20 units per acre on the more sensitive parts of the North Commercial zone,” Druker said. The tweaked amendment will come before the council a third time probably in February.

By comparison, failed earlier versions made no distinction between North Commercial’s 16 parcels.

Under the 1976 Coastal Act, environmental constraints already likely would’ve precluded development on any North Commercial parcels adjacent to the San Dieguito Lagoon, Lee told The Coast News previously. But the revised amendment would spell out that preclusion in black and white in the General Plan, perhaps making it a less bitter pill to swallow.

Having not yet seen the reworked text, Gaasterland declined to say how she’d vote this time.

Worden said he hopes Monday’s workshop clarified for all parties that state law requires a certain degree of up-zoning, even if the city could conceivably meet its housing quota without up-zoning. He hopes voters “come to their senses” and realize they “have to do it.”

Worden believes the council shouldn’t die on HCD’s hill now but should avert state sanctions by taking action to get into HCD’s good graces by the April deadline. The council could then pursue potential alternatives with HCD, amending the city’s housing plan if any pan out, he said.

HCD hinted it might entertain alternatives in a previous statement to The Coast News, but expressed doubt the city could nail them down by the April deadline.

Council also needs to allow extra density and ministerial development approval on two specific properties, the so-called “Watermark” parcels, planning staff said Monday.

This action is of even greater consequence because it’s been overdue for a longer period of time. Whereas failure to lock down the North Commercial up-zoning, in general, could result in penalties, Smith believes a failure to make the Watermark changes could pit the city against the Attorney General.

But, at least in the past, Watermark hasn’t induced as much contention, the former council had voted unanimously Oct. 19 to initiate the rezoning process.

Martinez and Quirk didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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