DEL MAR — Well over a dozen parents, teachers and students urged the Del Mar Union School District Board of Trustees to move forward with approving the Del Mar Heights School rebuild at an April 14 meeting.
Most speakers addressed their concerns about recent hints of litigation, sparked by conflicts over the district’s environmental impact (or CEQA) process and the size of the proposed rebuild’s green space.
The board stands to give the project a final stamp of approval in early to mid-May.
“The time to rebuild is now, we cannot wait,” said teacher and parent Cristin Strain, among the majority to speak in favor of the proposed design. “Our aging, fractured facilities cannot continue to accommodate our students’ needs, nor can our district afford to pay the $4 million in fees that would result if the rebuild were stalled by a lawsuit.”
Aimed at rebuilding the oldest school in the district, the approximately $45 million project has been in the works for years. The rebuild was one of the motivating factors behind Measure MM — a bond measure approved by voters in 2018 to secure funding for school facility improvement projects in the district.
Workshops began in the spring of 2019, with architect group BakerNowicki conducting several community meetings over the course of the year. The process led to a proposed design that shifts most of the elementary school’s classrooms to the eastern portion of the 10.85-acre property, with green areas spread throughout the school. It also introduces a lengthy queuing area on-site and nearly doubles the number of existing parking spaces.
The school’s green space would be increased by about 1,500 square feet. However, the main playfield would see a significant drop in size — a point of great contention among some parents and locals. In fact, such concerns yielded two organizations — Play Outside Del Mar and Save the Field, as well as a petition signed by over 2,000 aimed at saving the school’s existing green space.
Tension reached its peak in March, when the organizations — or in Save the Field’s case, their legal representation — submitted lengthy comments in response to the school’s mitigated negative declaration (MND).
Required by the state’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), such a document essentially spells out how the district plans to mitigate the project’s impacts until they reach a point of insignificance.
The two letters asserted the district is circumventing the environmental review process, and that the decrease in green space and the perceived resulting wildfire risk at hand should trigger the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) — which, in contrast to an MND, anticipates impacts that cannot be fully mitigated and maps them out.
The organizations were joined in their concern by the Sierra Club’s North County Coastal Group, which wrote a letter addressing the site’s “particularly sensitive location” next to the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and called for greater consideration for the project’s impacts.
During the virtual meeting, John Gartman, a representative with Play Outside Del Mar, said the organization mostly takes issue with the wildfire risks at play.
Gartman asserts that the new site design “aggressively changes it for the worse.”
“The site aggressively changes the fire road situation, the evacuation road situation, the fire space buffer situation … and the buildings are all moved closer to the reserve,” he said, urging that an evacuation time study should be done. “Despite the legal requirements to study all of these things, the MND doesn’t address a single one of them.”
Several parents pointed out that the organizations’ letters were reminiscent of a very recent lawsuit against the Cardiff School District — in which an organization called Save the Park sued and won a settlement against the district, asserting a failure to study the true impacts of the Cardiff School rebuild.
Procopio — the firm that sent the letter on Save the Field’s behalf — also represented Save the Park in the Cardiff lawsuit.
“We have seen what happened in Cardiff and we definitely don’t want money siphoned off from a school rebuild to line the pockets of attorneys,” said parent Jesse Barrick.
The Del Mar Union School District board had a closed session meeting on April 7 to address the letters with legal counsel. There has been no formal legal action at this time.
Chris Delehanty, the district’s executive director of capital programs & technology, told The Coast News that a mitigated negative declaration is the norm for many school district projects, particularly for projects of this nature.
“You don’t usually see districts doing an EIR on a school that would be the same size or smaller,” Delehanty said.
During the April 14 meeting, teachers and students alike lamented the conditions of the current school — where many of the classes take place in portable buildings with no running water and no sprinkler system for fire safety. Some of the classrooms have had to be evacuated in the past due to rat infestations.
District Board Member Scott Wooden said the potential litigation “may just be a redirect to continue a delay.”
“I do not see changes to the design if an EIR is approved or if a lawsuit is initiated,” Wooden said. “Instead I see the students being offsite next year while certain aspects of the EIR are done, plus an additional year while the current design is built.”
According to Delehanty, if the board approves the project in May, it will need to come before the Division of the State Architect before building can begin in 2020. Students would likely be back on the new site in fall of 2021. Students would continue their classes at other schools in the district for the duration of construction.