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How Soon We Forget
Dwight Worden | Seaview Avenue

Full-length version here


Thirty+ years ago, Del Mar, the mouse that roared, took on the City of San Diego in one of the most important land use lawsuits of the era, the North City West litigation. Let’s take a look back at what it was all about and do a quick overview of what has happened since the case was decided. Just in case you think all this is ancient history, read on.

San Diego ignored Del Mar’s arguments that North City West would cause traffic gridlock, would overload the sewer system and other vital services, would aggravate affordable housing shortages, was leapfrog development in violation of the Freilich plan, that there was no adequate long-term water supply, that the project would cause economic, traffic, service demand, and other spill-over effects on Del Mar, and that the idea it would be self contained was an unrealistic dream. Just in case you think all this is ancient history, read on.

When San Diego approved North City West anyway Del Mar took San Diego to court over these issues, perceiving that the integrity of the planning process, and the future of the region, were at stake--did growth management plans mean anything? Throughout California the case was watched as one of the most important precedents on these issues.

Del Mar lost the trial
So, what followed? In my view, some good and some bad:

On the good side, Del Mar now has many wonderful new neighbors, as well as new good things in nearby in Carmel Valley including great shopping, new schools, movie theaters, restaurants, a library, parks, an active community planning board, and other positive developments in what is now called Carmel Valley.

On the bad side, San Diego didn’t even follow the North City West plan that was litigated. That plan called for a max of 13,000 homes and 40,000 people phased in 9 phases over 30 years, but within 10 years San Diego had approved 16,000+ dwellings for 66,000 people, and the phasing plan was all but abandoned. Dead too were the North City West Transit system, and for the most part, the employment centers to allow people to live and work in the project and avoid commuting. The “self contained” community concept might have looked good on paper, but fell way short in its implementation.

Depending on your perspective, it was either good or bad that Del Mar did not have the money, or the heart, to re-litigate these issues at the subdivision stage as suggested by the court of appeal, even though to a large degree the predicted parade of problems came true quicker and with greater severity than predicted. And, the ensuing 30 years post lawsuit also saw delays and compromises in implementing planned parks, open space, recreation, and other amenities, often over the vociferous objection of the new Carmel Valley residents.

On the regional scale, North City West and other San Diego development did in fact overload the sewer system, including the Pt. Loma treatment plant, as Del Mar projected, leaving San Diego facing billions in expenses to bring the system into compliance. Likewise, one need only drive the local roads, or try the merge or route 56 at commute time, to know that traffic gridlock occurred.

Perhaps a Del Mar victory would also have forced San Diego to fix its sewer issues 30 years ago when the cost to do so was much less, and to actually build a transit system and employment housing in Carmel Valley. But, then again, maybe not. The pro growth San Diego city council of the time may well have found a way to proceed with North City West even in the face of a court loss. We’ll never know.
Again, if you still think all this is ancient history, read up on the One Paseo project now proposed for the last large vacant parcel in Carmel Valley. One Paseo, true to North City West’s contentious history, seeks to more than double the density called for by the adopted general plan--yes, the same general plan at issue in the 1982 lawsuit. The justification? Among others, the oft repeated claim that doubling the density will facilitate making Carmel Valley a self contained community.

Some things never change, I guess. But one thing has changed--there is now a large group of vocal and organized citizen-residents of Carmel Valley as well as a very active Carmel Valley Community Planning Group demanding that their voices be heard about what happens with One Paseo and to their community. That’s different from back when Del Mar took up the challenge as an outsider, and that’s an important and positive change. Let’s hope the current activists have better luck with One Paseo than Del Mar did 30 years ago.

Note: The North City West case decision can be found at: 133 Cal.App.3d 401. the author was the Del Mar city attorney at the time and was lead counsel on the case.

Please see a more detailed account on our website at



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