Del Mar approves design review guidelines

DEL MAR — Guidelines intended to make the design review process easier, more transparent and less subjective were adopted 4-1, with Mayor Terry Sinnott opposed, at the Nov. 6 meeting.

During a nearly three-hour public hearing, the 24 people who spoke were almost evenly split on whether the 144-page document achieved its goals. But three-fourths of the approximately 40 emails received stated that it did and should be approved.

Matt Bator, the city’s senior planner, said the guidelines are recommendations, not regulations, created with the help of consultants and a citizen committee to protect community character and set expectations.

He said they do not expressly prohibit anything and should be applied on a case-by-case basis to the different areas of the city.

The ad hoc committee used input from 10 meetings held since January to create a draft document that was reviewed by the Design Review Board and Planning Commission.

Some of the concerns raised during the review process included the quantification of view obstruction, deck size and placement limitations, circular driveway discouragement and massing guidelines that may produce homogeneous neighborhoods.

For example, there are recommendations to “limit the size of the deck to promote passive use” and avoid retaining walls over 4 feet high and circular driveways when they would result in a net decrease of formal on-street parking.

Some people said portions of the guidelines are overly restrictive, may affect or restrict good design, appear to standardize development and don’t address the problem of objectivity.

“Del Mar has an eclectic nature and architecturally it is very eclectic,” Design Review Board member Scott MacDonald said. “I worry that when we put all these guidelines together we force conformity or a standardization that we really don’t intend.”

Don Countryman, a planning commissioner, said the guidelines lack equity. Laura DeMarco said under the guidelines some of Del Mar’s most historic homes, such as the Canfield-Wright House, also known as the “Pink Lady,” could not be built today.

In response to concerns that the guidelines would redefine some existing houses as nonconforming or affect the historic qualities of others, the staff report states that “structural nonconformities are created when homes are inconsistent with zoning regulations, not guidelines.”

Resident Warren Spieker wrote that the guidelines actually make the design review process more complicated and subjective.

Some speakers said the key to improving the process is better training for Design Review Board members charged with applying the design review ordinance to development plans.

A few Design Review Board and Planning Commission members said the recommendations will make their jobs easier.

“Hopefully the guidelines will help resolve potential issues before they actually become issues,” Beth Levine said. “It’s definitely something that will be helpful for the Design Review Board members.”

Other supporters said it is a living document that can be amended as necessary.

“I understand there are still some concerns in the community, and I think over time we will work through those and continue to improve this document,” Councilwoman Ellie Haviland said. “I don’t want to wait until it’s perfect to approve it and start using it because once we start using it we can just make it even better.

“I think it’s a huge step forward in helping all of those involved with the design review process getting on the same page and managing expectations and having another tool to make this process easier,” she added.

“Change is never easy even though the addition of the guidelines will change the process for the better,” Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said. “So it’s not surprising that we are encountering some resistance at this time.

“We need to get it implemented, get our DRB trained and to use it and set a time in the future to review and see if it’s working,” she added. “I agree that this should be a living document that the council revisits in a few years to make sure it’s working as expected and applicants, neighbors, architects and the DRB members are navigating this process effectively.”

“This product is really going to be good for Del Mar,” Councilman Dwight Worden said.

Sinnott said he supports the document but opposed its adoption because he disagrees with the idea that the guidelines are recommendations. He said they should be used as regulations.

The guidelines are applicable to single- and multifamily homes and businesses but not specific plan applications.

Council members will evaluate them in two years for “effectiveness, usefulness and revisions if needed,” Bator said.

“We do plan on this being a living document … to make sure they are doing what they were created to do,” he added.

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