Community Planning Beginnings

I had the honor of serving as mayor of Del Mar from 1974 to 1975, during much of the 20-month period when residents — assisted by city staff — developed, debated and eventually adopted the Community Plan.  While the outcome of those deliberations is now ancient history, successes and failures embodied in that plan may be instructive today in guiding residents and city officials struggling to apply the vision contained in the plan to current circumstances facing the city.


It was a radical concept in 1973, when Planning Director Gary Binger and City Manager Wayne Dernetz proposed a process to develop a community plan driven primarily by residents.  That concept presumed a shared belief that the plan’s primary goal should be “to preserve and protect that unique environmental quality which now is the Del Mar Experience…to preserve as well the opportunity for people of all economic and social backgrounds to share in a liveable Del Mar, while preserving that experience for the future.”

Tom Shepard (left) with Joel Holliday. Photo courtesy RWB Multimedia.

The process of developing the plan was not without controversy, accentuated by the nature of a truly participatory, citizen-driven effort.  But over months of contentious task force meetings and widespread community debate, residents learned to articulate shared values and build resilient coalitions.  Regional leaders emerged from that process, including the late Dick Rypinski, who became mayor and went on to lead what eventually became the San Diego Association of Governments; Sage Sweetwood, who became mayor and later a major force in statewide healthcare and environmental planning; City Attorney Roger Hedgecock, who became a County Supervisor and subsequently mayor of San Diego; the late Dave Keeling (and his son Drew), who was a driving force in alerting the world to the reality of climate change (along with creating Del Mar’s Floor Area Ratio ordinance), the late Lee Rovner who led successful efforts to permanently preserve Crest Canyon; the late mayor Lou Terrell; former mayors Al Tarkington, Nancy Hoover, John Weare, Rosalind Feierabend; community leaders Joe Lang, Rosanne and Joel Holliday, Ann and Bob Hohmeyer, Mary Ann and Bud Emerson, Carl and Lorraine Rouse, Freda Reid, Jan McMillan…and so many more.


Opponents of the plan referendized the council’s approval of it. We made the decision to repeal the housing and trails elements, which were the most controversial, in order to ensure the remainder of the plan would be approved by voters.


A number of the objectives laid out in the Community Plan have been largely accomplished: …to maintain a village-like community of uncrowded, predominantly single-family residences…permanent protection of the outstanding natural features…preserving Del Mar’s 2-1/2 miles of sand beach, its still undeveloped sandstone bluffs, the open vistas and private gardens, the groves of native and exotic trees, and the presently degraded but restorable San Dieguito Lagoon.”  In large part, mission accomplished.


But the controversy surrounding development of the plan presaged future disappointments, not the least of which is a community that falls far short of the original goal of preserving the opportunity for people of all economic and social backgrounds to share in these accomplishments.  While the plan envisioned a vibrant Village Center District with “duplexes and multiple development on parcels greater than 7,000 square feet” to provide a mix of housing opportunities, the protection of “existing moderate cost housing from unnecessary redevelopment,” the allowance of “density and floor area bonuses for new rental housing,” and discouraging  “the conversion of apartment units to residential condominiums,” you would be hard-pressed to judge those objectives as accomplished.


So, what can we learn from Del Mar’s experience in citizen-based planning?  One obvious take-away is the best laid plans are subject to forces of change no individual or community can anticipate.  Another is that it takes more than a planning document to accomplish a community’s shared objectives.  And perhaps most importantly, achieving a community’s shared objectives requires a sense of perspective – an understanding of how we got here, how the decisions we make today can shape our future, and the obligation we all share to look beyond our immediate self-interests to achieve meaningful progress.