We now see the first tangible consequence of the recent votes by Council Members Druker and Gaasterland to veto the necessary actions to remedy the City’s noncompliance with the Housing Element of the Del Mar Community Plan: a larger Watermark housing project, developed “by right,” with greatly reduced community input, and no discretionary or environmental review.
Unless we dramatically change course and come into compliance with State housing law, this is just the first of many examples coming our way of losing local control over our zoning and development, including the rest of North Commercial, North Bluff, and South Bluff (Staver).
“By right” means no discretionary review by the Design Review Board or Planning Commission, no environmental review under CEQA, and no Specific Plan shaping the project to meet community concerns. These are key tools of local control that have long allowed us to protect our neighborhood character under the Community Plan. Under “by right” processing, State law takes away all this local review authority. “By right” applications are fast-tracked, with strict timelines set by state law.
Why is the Watermark developer entitled to proceed with “by right” development? Simply put, it is because of our failure to come into compliance with our Community Plan’s Housing Element and state housing law. Until now, the City and the Watermark developer were pursuing a Specific Plan strategy with the tacit blessing of the State: a Specific Plan that would have reduced the density of the development and meet community concerns, but still produce the affordable housing units that we needed from this property. The Specific Plan would have kept the project at two stories, reduced the number of units well below 20 units/acre, and given DRB its usual significant role to shape the project’s design.
When Gaasterland and Druker vetoed coming into compliance with state housing law on September 8, the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) notified the City that we were in noncompliance, giving us 30 days (until Oct. 30) to respond before taking action against us, which could include referral to the State Attorney General for legal action, fines, decertification, and more. The Council tried again on October 5 to come into compliance to avoid those penalties, but Gaasterland and Druker again voted no, confirming our noncompliance with State law and our Community Plan’s Housing Element.
Another consequence of the City’s noncompliance is that it gives developers the right to pursue projects “by right.” And that is precisely the path the Watermark developer is now choosing, as detailed in an Oct. 16 letter from their attorney to the City. Notably, the letter points out that it is clear the Specific Plan could not gain the required 4/5ths vote in the foreseeable future, based on the “no” votes Gaasterland and Druker have cast against the NC zoning amendments. Development plans under this “by right” process are expected to be filed shortly.
Watermark’s letter states they will be filng plans for a 48 unit project, including 10 affordable units, instead of the Specific Plan proposal of 38 units including 7-10 affordable units.
Project planners state that the revised project will move units from the hillside to protect environmentally sensitive habitat, including Torrey Pine trees, and comply with the Bluff, Slope, & Canyon overlay. Wetlands will be separated by a 50-ft buffer. New fire protection measures will include fire resistant siding and roof materials and a new emergency fire evacuation route at the southern end of the property (which will also be available to San Dieguito Road evacuees through the project parking structure). Because of the reduced size of the buildable lot, several structures will be three stories above the parking podium. The plan will address noise concerns by eliminating a pool and roof top decks in addition to underground parking. The affordable units will mirror the mix of 3-, 2-, and 1-bedroom market units so that families can be accommodated. Although the process could allow as many as 59 units, they believe 48 strikes a balance between design aesthetics and financial feasibility.
Bottom line: Had we come into compliance with State law and completed the Specific Plan process with Watermark, we would be looking at a 38-unit project that produced 7-10 units toward our state mandate for affordable housing. Instead, after vigorous opposition from some nearby residents and two Council members with respect to the Watermark project and the North Commercial zoning amendments required by our Housing Element, we are now looking at a 48-unit project with no discretionary review, no environmental review, and minimal community input into the final project. This is Exhibit A of what it means to be in noncompliance with State housing law, and with the Housing Element portion of our Community Plan.