Commentary: Watermark Politics

Watermark: Approved for 50 Units. On April 19, Watermark received City approval of a Coastal Development Permit to construct a new 50-unit, 132,894 square-foot residential development with a 10-unit affordable housing component, on vacant property located near the Jimmy Durante traffic circle. The permit was issued under “by-right” provisions that exempt the environmental review, the design review, and other discretionary reviews. State law would allow as many as 80 units if Watermark chose to do so.


The permit approval can be appealed to the California Coastal Commission (CCC), which must begin a public hearing within 49 days to determine if it raises a “substantial issue,” with grounds for appeal limited to allegations that the approved development does not conform to Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program or to Coastal Act public access provisions.


Watermark was entitled under State law to request a waiver or reduction of development standards that would have the effect of physically precluding the construction of the development at the density allowed and sought for the production of affordable housing. Watermark requested these four waivers, all of which were granted, given the narrow grounds for denial allowed by State law:


  1. An increase in maximum number of stories from two to four (includes parking level below podium).
  2. An increase in maximum allowed height from 14 feet to 47 feet, 6 inches.
  3. Allowance for up to 10% encroachment into substantially steep slopes, as defined in the Bluff, Slope and Canyon Overlay Zone.
  4. An increase in maximum floor area ratio (FAR) from 0.3 to 1.29.
Rendering showing 50-unit plan. Courtesy City of Del Mar.

In addition, the site contains a coastal brackish marsh (wetland), and Watermark requested and received a reduction in the wetland buffer from 100 feet to 50 feet; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has provided acceptance of the proposed buffer width.


Why 50 Units Instead of 38? The Watermark saga, unfortunately, is a textbook-worthy case study in political and fiduciary malpractice. As the Sandpiper has previously reported, after a long community process that produced a 38-unit “community response alternative” to an earlier 48-unit proposal, Watermark resorted to its by-right option in 2021 after two Council Members, Gaasterland and Druker, made their opposition clear, thereby signaling that the required four votes for approval would not be forthcoming.

Rendering showing 38-unit plan. Courtesy City of Del Mar.

For years prior to that time, Watermark had been voluntarily engaging in a good faith Specific Planning process that would have resulted in a smaller, 38-unit town home development with public benefits, including six affordable units, three of which were to be deeded to city ownership. The Gaasterland-Druker opposition effectively killed the 38-unit “community response alternative.” So now the city gets a larger 50-unit complex with more density, height, a 4-story component instead of 2, with no affordable units deeded to the city, and no environmental, design, or other discretionary reviews.


This is what happens when council members pander for political support by opposing a development, even as they know that the result is likely to be the loss of local control over a far bigger, by-right development. No doubt, this posturing won votes for the current Council majority – but it also “won” a bigger, denser, taller development, without CEQA or DRB review. Just look at the graphics for the 38-unit “community response alternative” we could have had, and the 50-unit development Del Mar is getting. The images should be more persuasive than the gaslighting you’re certain to hear. It’s crystal clear that we would be better off with the 38-unit proposal that resulted from good faith, win-win community interaction with Watermark, instead of the 50-unit development that fierce opposition and political posturing got us.