SOLANA BEACH — City Council took the next step to possibly allow the recently renovated Fletcher Cove Community Center to be rented for private events, voting 4-1 at the Sept. 12 meeting to spend up to $25,000 to study the potential impacts of the added uses.
“It may be permissible … to do this with public funds but I don’t feel it’s right to spend public money to study something only to have private benefit to it, especially when this private use was not intended from the first day of this project,” said Councilman Mike Nichols, who cast the dissenting vote.
The bluff-top facility is a former Army barracks on Pacific Avenue bordered by homes to the east and north and Fletcher Cove Park to the south.
Community groups such as the Civic and Historical Society used it for meetings and it has long been home to the Thursday night singalongs. A few decades ago — deemed “the nightmare of the ’90s” by resident Richard Jacobs — it was available for private parties that neighbors said often resulted in noise, traffic and public drunkenness.
“I was there and I witnessed it,” said Jacobs, a 30-year resident on nearby Helix Avenue.
Some claim the activities stopped because of neighborhood complaints. Others say it was because the building had fallen into such disrepair no one wanted to host an event there.
After the nearly $400,000 renovation — funded mostly by grants and private donations — was completed in July 2011, the singalongs returned and the facility has been used for meetings, classes and summer camp.
But even before the center officially reopened residents had been asking about reserving it for other events such as birthday parties and receptions. Maximum occupancy is between 50 and 100 people, based on whether tables are used.
Council directed staff last October to develop a policy for the expanded uses. But when the proposal was presented earlier this year, the recommendations created more problems than they solved.
Some residents saw it as a beautiful facility not being used to its full potential. They said events would be mostly family gatherings and small receptions. Those who live nearby feared a return to the party days of the 1990s.
There were concerns about parking, which is limited, noise from music during events and, most importantly, allowing alcohol.
In April council members returned it to the residents and told both sides to work out a compromise. A small group met and agreed on almost all terms except alcohol use. While the neighbors wanted to continue meeting, proponents of the expanded use said they felt the matter should be returned for council input.
Adoption of a use policy wasn’t on the Sept. 12 agenda but speakers used the opportunity to share their opinions.
“A vast majority of your constituents, many of whom gave money for the remodel of the building, are waiting for a test run of weekend use,” Margaret Schlesinger, the city’s first mayor, said, noting that a summer had come and gone with no opportunity to use the center.
“How much longer do they have to wait?” she asked.
“Now is the time to bring the use of the Fletcher Cove Community Center back to the activities associated with the center prior to the time it fell into disrepair,” Tom Golich said. “Spending … as much money as we have … and not using the building is like buying a very expensive car and parking it in the garage.”
“I’m still trying to understand what feels to me like a slow-moving, unstoppable bulldozer pushing this proposal forward despite all of the negative impacts,” Kelly Harless said. “These are not inconsequential impacts — noise, traffic, neighborhood character and … children’s safety with 100 people drinking alcohol.
“I still can’t wrap my head around why we’re here discussing it at this point,” she said. “Since when does donating money for a public building guarantee a private use for that building?”
Nichols said he opposes private party rentals because that was never a proposed use. He watched a 2007 council meeting held before the renovation began during which Councilman Dave Roberts said, “I do not want to build a party facility here.”
Nichols said at that meeting all his other colleagues agreed unanimously with that statement.
“This should be a community meeting place,” Nichols said. “In 2007 the City Council was very clear as to what our expressed intent was for the future of the community center and it was not to have private parties.
“To say that was an intended use, in my opinion, is trying to rewrite history,” he said.
Councilwoman Lesa Heebner didn’t dispute that claim but said “a large portion of our community” asked council to consider other uses.
“I think it’s beholden upon us … to listen to them, to be open-minded about that and to do what we have been doing, which is consider that,” Heebner said.
“I don’t want to see a neighborhood overrun with noise and drunk people,” she said. “I don’t believe that we’re creating a party place. … No one’s talking about six hours of drinking.”
Council members and those who live near the center said they weren’t necessarily concerned about inappropriate behavior by the proponents of the new uses, many of whom are former council members.
“You know that after the word gets out that this facility is available … there’s going to be a rowdy group that’s going to blow the lid off this place,” said Jacobs, who referred to the proponents as “pillars of the community.”
“We are here to listen to the … entire community,” Mayor Joe Kellejian said, recalling that he held a party at the facility after his daughter’s christening 30 years ago.
“It wasn’t a wild party,” he said. We did have a little bit of wine there … It was a wonderful, memorable event.”
Kellejian then announced he just learned that same daughter is pregnant and he hoped to be able to hold the christening party at the center.
The required California Environmental Quality Act study is estimated to cost between $15,000 and $25,000 and will take about three months to complete.
Nichols said it could end up costing more but his colleagues instructed staff to return to council if it comes in one penny over that amount.