DEL MAR — The fate of the controversial Marisol resort is officially up to the Del Mar voters, with the City Council voting 3-2 to put the project’s specific plan on a March 3, 2020, ballot.
In true Del Mar fashion, discussion and debate over whether to place the 410,000-square-foot project’s specific plan on a March or November ballot lasted nearly three hours at a Nov. 4 City council meeting, with over 20 speakers weighing in. The majority of the speakers urged the council to slow down the process, in order to give residents more time to digest the project.
Ultimately council opted for an earlier election.
“This is absolutely a divisive issue in our city,” said City Councilwoman Ellie Haviland. “It’s not going to get better in time, it’s going to get worse with time.”
The election will determine the outcome of the proposed blufftop resort’s specific plan overlay — a zoning amendment that changes the lot’s density allowance but does not supersede necessary discretionary approvals. If voters approve the project, it will still go through the planning commission, design review board and city council approval processes.
The resort has become a complex and contentious topic in Del Mar. Slated for the city’s largest vacant lot off of Highway 101 and Border Avenue, the project would bring 65 hotel rooms and 31 villas to the blufftop property, as well as 10 low-income visitor accommodations and 22 affordable housing units.
The developers — Zephyr and the Robert Green Company — and proponents have promoted the project based on its potential for public access, aimed at giving locals a chance to walk along a currently gated bluff, and visit the resort’s restaurant, café, garden and spa.
In September, the developers were able to gather enough signatures to qualify the project for a special election.
Marisol is the developer’s second go at the project’s design, after they had originally proposed a resort with 251 hotel rooms and 76 villas. The project was met with a sharp outcry from both Del Mar and neighboring Solana Beach last year, with locals expressing concerns over bulk, height, potential threats to the bluff and traffic.
Said concerns have continued — particularly over the project’s density and maximum height of 46 feet — but the city’s most recent council item on Marisol largely prompted discussion on the question: when will residents have all of the answers they need to make an informed vote?
The majority of speakers urged a November ballot, arguing that a project of Marisol’s magnitude demands more time, more information, and a larger voter turnout.
“A November 2020 ballot allows reasonable time to conduct a series of meetings as well as a comprehensive community outreach program,” said Solana Beach resident Brian Feingold, an active opponent of the project.
Others think that delaying the project “won’t solve anything.”
“A lot of people have already formed their opinions both for and against it … the remedy is not more information,” said resident Greg Rothnam.
Some speakers pushed for story poles — in the hopes that a tangible visual representation will give voters a better idea of the project’s scope. However, the developer is not required to post story poles of the project until it comes in front of the design review board — a process that would not take place until after the election.
“I’m looking for story poles to see what 46 feet of height really means on that mesa,” said resident John Morris. “I see no story poles and for me, that’s a non-starter for any discussion or any talk of an election.”
Zephyr Executive VP Jim McMenamin, a Del Mar resident, said during public comment that installing story poles before their application comes in front of the board “will only serve to confuse the process.”
Community division was reflected on the council, with Mayor Dave Druker and Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland voting against a March ballot. Gaasterland said she thinks “time will help to settle the divisiveness.”
“I truly believe that if this is right for Del Mar, November is the right time to do the vote,” she said.
Councilman Dwight Worden expressed concern that a later vote could complicate the development of the city’s current housing element — which requires the city to find space for 163 units in its next nine-year housing cycle. The city must have its housing element complete and certified by April 2021.
“This is by far the single largest vacant piece of property in this town, we must address it in our housing element,” Worden said.
The fate of the resort has become increasingly linked to local discussions of affordable housing and the statewide housing crisis, with Del Mar currently bringing zero affordable units to the table. Marisol developers are proposing to build all 22 of the affordable housing units Del Mar was allocated for its last housing cycle — particularly notable in a city that is essentially built out and struggling to accommodate increasingly rigorous state mandates.
A recent Elections Code 9212 report developed in response to the initiative put a quantitative lens on the lot’s future — specifically if the vote fails.
The 9212 report stated that the zoning of the site could be changed in the next housing cycle to accommodate the city’s allocated units. For example, changing the zoning to match the state’s desired minimum density of 20 dwelling units per acre would allow for 331 residential units on the property.
The current zoning allows for between 14 to 16 large homes.
“Our choice is not this change versus no change, it is this change versus some other change including residential development of up to … 331 private houses,” said resident Robert Hughes.
Developers and residents alike are now awaiting the outcome of the project’s draft environmental impact report (EIR), which will reveal more about the project’s impact on things like traffic and bluff safety. The report is expected to be complete by the end of December along with an economic impact and fiscal analysis.
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.