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New program may ease design review process

DEL MAR — Hoping to make the design review process less time consuming, more cost effective and, according to at least one design review board member, “more civil,” City Council authorized the formation of a citizens participation program.
With that approval at the June 14 meeting, city staff and DRB members will move forward to create a code amendment based on models currently used in Encinitas and Glendale, Ariz. The goal of the new program, which will be tailored to fit Del Mar, will be to foster community input on development proposals early in the DRB process.
“I’ve seen many times when a project and the process take longer than (they) should,” said Lee Haydu, a DRB member since July 2007. “The times that that happens the most are when the neighbors haven’t been involved in the process.”
If the applicant or architect held neighborhood discussions, the design review board meetings wouldn’t be “the place where everyone airs their complaints,” Haydu said.
“The citizen participation program that we’ve looked at won’t eliminate residents from speaking at our meetings, but it should save staff time and DRB members’ time and putting the DRB in such a bad light,” she said.
Council members, who for the most part have all participated in the design review process as either board members or residents, supported the concept, but also had concerns.
“Generally speaking, since I like experimenting, I’m in favor of this as a philosophy,” said Mayor Richard Earnest, who feared there could be accusations of backroom meetings.
Councilman Don Mosier said he experienced times when meetings were held and problems appeared to be resolved so neighbors didn’t attend the final DRB hearing. The applicant then misrepresented what occurred, he said.
Councilman Carl Hilliard said the three times he went through the design review process, the issues that arose weren’t “for lack of meetings.” He said most problems stemmed from architects coming in with projects they knew wouldn’t be approved, agreements made during meetings not being documented and a lack of participation.
“There were some people that simply didn’t want to go through the nose-to-nose, face-to-face with the neighbor and the architect,” Hilliard said. “So they just either didn’t participate or they didn’t say too much until it got time to the DRB hearing and then, in it came.”
Councilwoman Crystal Crawford was reluctant to create more bureaucracy. “We’ve got a system that takes a lot of time and effort now to go through, so I guess I’m struggling to figure out how do we do this in a way that’s beneficial but doesn’t create a lot of extra work,” she said.
Planning Manager Adam Birnbaum said the citizens participation program wouldn’t be warranted for every project, but is should help encourage neighbors to communicate better by standardizing what is now an informal part of the DRB process.
Birnbaum said applicants would basically be required to state the meeting details, then hold the meeting or meetings and finally, report the results.
The results would become part of the application packet so that if a neighbor who attended the meeting feels misrepresentation occurred, he or she would have the opportunity to respond, he said.
Haydu, who has been working on the plan for about two years, was seeking to establish the program for two years. Council members agreed to allow the program for one year from the date of implementation. At that time they will review the results and consider an extension.
Councilman Mark Filanc said the main goal of the program should be to “get people to communicate beforehand.”
“We can’t make them agree,” he said. “We just need them to talk. And if they talk, there’s a better chance of success early on in the design review process. And I don’t think we should push any more than that.”