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July/August 2009 home page

Preserving Del Mar's Heritage
Art Olson, Primavera

Photo Art Olson

The celebration of the 50th birthday of Del Mar’s incorporation provides occasion to reflect on the City’s past and to contemplate its future. If asked what aspects of Del Mar they would like to see changed in the next 50 years, most residents would likely say “not much.” People value Del Mar not for what it could become, but what it is (aside from the perennial issues of traffic and parking). Preserving the beauty of our surroundings and the unique character of our small town is high on most citizens’ wish list.

Preservation may be a popular notion, but it can be fraught with practical problems -- as demonstrated several years back when an attempt was made to update Del Mar’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zoning ordinance. In 2002, after the threatened Canfield House (the “Pink Lady”) on Primavera was rescued, the City Council recognized that there were a number of other residences in the community that had special significance in making Del Mar the place it is. The threat that they could be demolished sparked their action.

The Council formed a Historical Preservation Advisory Committee to make recommendations that would foster the preservation of structures that had architectural or cultural significance and that were not covered by the existing Historic Overlay Zone. The Committee was tasked to inventory the city for potentially historic structures. This was time consuming work for the nine members of the Committee (I was one), but gathering such data was considered a rational approach to evaluating what historical resources existed in Del Mar. The process was one of winnowing. The first cut was age; only structures older than 50 years were considered. Several subsequent stages of evaluation lead to a preliminary list of residential buildings that the committee agreed should be further evaluated. At that point, the Committee felt obliged to notify the owners that their properties were to be evaluated for possible historical significance. Publication of the list in a local newspaper generated immediate reaction, and HOOD (Home Owners of Old Del Mar) formed to protest the perceived threat to property rights and home values that historic designation might bring.

Ultimately, the issue came down to whether historic designation of a property was to be voluntary or involuntary for the owner. At a public hearing Council members voiced a preference for a voluntary process in agreement with HOOD, but no action was taken. Del Mar was left in the same state it had been prior to the formation of the Committee, with no change to the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone – and no mechanism even for those who wanted their house recognized as historic. That was 5 years ago.

In this 50th birthday year, we should again think of what is worth saving from the wrecker for Del Mar 50 years hence. Carmel-by-the-Sea, a relevant example, has voluntary historical preservation that appears to work quite well. That city keeps an inventory of buildings that could qualify for historical designation, but the designation itself must be sought by the owner and approved by the city. Shouldn’t Del Mar follow suit?


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