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New program to simplify design review process

DEL MAR — Hoping to streamline the design review process, reduce costs and possibly avoid some sleepless nights, City Council unanimously approved a code amendment to allow the formation of a citizens participation program at the Oct. 18 meeting.
The new law will require certain applicants to take part in the process so neighbors can become better informed and provide input on proposals early in the design phase.
Any new detached structure greater than 500 square feet or any second-story addition to an existing structure will be subject to the process.
The program can also be triggered if the planning director, in consultation with the Design Review Board chairperson, determines a development could potentially result in adverse impacts to the surrounding area.
Sometimes staff can determine if a particular project will be problematic based on where it’s located or the design elements, but not always, Planning Manager Adam Birnbaum said.
The project applicant will be required to send a notice to nearby owners and residents that includes a preliminary project description and early draft plans, as well as invitations to meet and discuss the proposal at a convenient time.
Follow-up information must be sent to those who participated in the neighborhood meetings advising them of any plan revisions. Applicants will be required to prepare a record of how neighbors were advised of the project proposal, comments and ideas raised at the meetings and if and how the project was modified as a result of the comments.
The program must be implemented before an application is placed on a DRB agenda for formal review. Cost to the city for staff time is estimated to be about $200.
Birnbaum said about 70 percent of project applicants are familiar with the city’s design review process.
“They go out and do their due diligence to scout the neighborhood, look at potential impacts that their project may have and somehow reach out to the potentially affected neighbors to let them know what’s going on,” Birnbaum said.
When this doesn’t occur, concerns are often raised at the DRB hearing when project approval is expected.
Because these issues arise late in the design phase it “creates more tension and … some acrimony in the overall process,” Birnbaum said. It can also result in cost increases because a redesign or modification may be required.
The request to form the citizens participation program came from current DRB chairwoman Lee Haydu, a three-year DRB member who has been working on the plan for about two years. It was modeled after similar programs in Encinitas and Glendale, Ariz., but tailored to fit Del Mar.
“The intent is to capture every project that would be controversial … anything that would be contentious to a neighborhood,” Haydu said.
“This is not going to be a panacea but we hope, with it, to cut down the number of circumstances where controversy isn’t addressed early on,” Birnbaum said.
Councilwoman Crystal Crawford said the goal is to achieve better communications, better noticing and cost savings for the city, project applicants and their neighbors. She also said it could help avoid lost sleep when neighbors are pitted against each other.
“How much does that cost you?” she asked.

Designed to frontload the design review process, Crawford agreed with Birnbaum that the new requirements won’t solve every problem.
“We’re never going to get everybody to talk and everybody to agree,” Crawford said, adding that last-minute objections are unfair to applicants. “We’re trying to make this a better process for everybody.”
“I think it does, in fact, streamline the process,” Mayor Richard Earnest said. “It … gets people informed early.
“I think it will alleviate a lot of the rancor that can happen at the DRB meetings, sometimes before, and really afterwards,” he said. “It’s not perfect but it can be tweaked.”
Del Mar architect Dean Meredith said he supports the program.
“There’s neighbors … that are afraid of the process,” he said. “Something’s being built. They’re afraid of change.”
Meredith, who used the process successfully for a Cardiff project, said if the program is “blessed by City Council,” residents might be more inclined to speak with architects.
It tells them “it’s OK to open the door. This is part of the process,” Meredith said. “It will help everybody in the long run.”
The new law is scheduled to be adopted at the Nov. 8 meeting and will become effective 30 days after that. Projects submitted before then will not be subject to the new rules.
The process will be implemented as a two-year pilot program, but council members can make changes during that time if it is apparent some elements are not working well.