DEL MAR — Without any formal plans or permit applications, council members at the July 21 meeting approved a specific plan process for a proposed development on a vacant lot at the corner of Jimmy Durante Boulevard and San Dieguito Drive.
“I think the process has lots of opportunities for public input, plus it (requires) Planning Commission and Design Review Board approval,” Councilman Don Mosier said. “So I think the process will work for this project, and I think putting it in a specific plan process rather than going through four independent review cycles will work better and … moves the project forward a little bit faster.”
Property owner Watermark DM LP has expressed interest in building a multifamily development on the approximately 2.3-acre lot.
Known as Watermark Del Mar, the project was introduced at a July 2013 workshop and included 54 one- to four-bedroom apartments and townhomes. Seven of the units are slated to be classified as affordable rentals.
Because the parcels are located in the north commercial zone, several legislative changes and discretionary permits must be approved before residential units are allowed.
Land use modifications require community plan and local coastal program amendments and a new zoning map.
All three actions mandate action by the Planning Commission, City Council and California Coastal Commission and are subject to an environmental review.
Also needed are Design Review Board, coastal and floodplain development, conditional use and land conservation permits.
Zoning changes can be made using one of two methods. A sequential process would initially create a new zoning chapter that could not contain any deviations or assess public benefits.
A specific plan, which creates a special set of development standards for a particular area, encompasses all the legislative actions and regulatory development parameters and allows the public benefit of the project to be addressed.
The property owner asked the city to consider allowing the use of a specific plan. That will require a citizens participation program, an environmental scoping meeting, presentations to the Planning Commission and Design Review Board and at least three public workshops.
In addition, the developers have proposed an informal process that would include an interactive website, creation of a database of interested parties that would be used for direct noticing of meetings and workshops beyond what is required, meetings with neighbors and other stakeholders and creation of an advisory group.
In a letter to the city and during the public comment period, resident Hershell Price said the project should be approved in a formal vote. He also asked that the public be notified once the plans have been submitted so residents can begin commenting on the project as soon as possible.
“We welcome your comments on the project,” Marco Gonzalez, of Coast Law Group, said on behalf of his clients. “We’re trying to create a very, very transparent process.”
Gonzalez said as a land use attorney, he is often frustrated trying to get documents. As a result, his clients are committed to creating a website where the public doesn’t have to search for documents, such as a draft specific plan, the environmental impact report and public comments.
“We’re going to make that readily available right up front and an opportunity for people to put in their comments right there on the spot online,” Gonzalez said.
He said the goal of the advisory group is to “foster some dialogue from some interested parties in regular meetings … so that we can get their honest, very upfront approach to things as they go along.”
“We’re here to constantly field the comments of the community,” Gonzalez said. “Because this is such an important project at such an important location in this community, we want to give this added level of transparency.
“However … we don’t believe it’s appropriate to bring this to a vote,” he added. “We are committed to transparency and having as many meetings as it takes to make sure everyone gets heard and hopefully we’ll see this project evolve into something that at the end of the day we can all stand proud of.”
Price and resident Arnold Wiesel, who also spoke at the July 21 meeting, said they appreciate the transparency efforts, but still believed registered voters should have a chance to weigh in.
“This is serious enough, contentious enough,” said Wiesel, who hosted a community meeting about the project in November. “This is not a light-hearted event. This will be a dogged fight and it doesn’t have to be. This is not a moment of crisis and conflict. This is really a moment to vote.”
Residents Don Countryman and Dwight Worden sent emails to the city supporting the specific plan process. Countryman said the city should “avoid a public vote” because the housing goals of the project are part of the state-certified housing element, a fact not lost on Councilwoman Sherryl Parks.
“We can’t forget that we will be penalized and have a hefty fine if we ignore this,” she said. “So that’s the reality of this plan.”
With a 4-0-1 vote, with Al Corti recused because he lives within 500 feet of the project, council members agreed to allow the specific plan process, noting it is too early to discuss a public vote.
“This is a very, very important project for the community,” Councilman Terry Sinnott said. “It’s in a location that we hope is going to be developed in a way that fits with the community.
“I know there are folks who want to have a public vote on the project,” he added. “I think that is a little bit premature because we don’t even have a project. We don’t have the public input yet.”
Mosier agreed. “I think … the council can make more commitments about a public vote or not a public vote when we see how the process works at each step,” he said. “If it’s still controversial at that end stage, after all this public input, we’ll have to consider exercising the wisdom of the voters.”