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DRO Prescription
Carl Hilliard | former Del Mar City Council Member and Mayor

Word is it’s hard to build in Del Mar. But truth be told, the cards are stacked in the developer’s favor because instead of serving Del Mar residents, the Design Review Ordinance (DRO) often ends up working to the advantage of applicants whose representatives handily navigate through the process and manipulate the vocabulary to their advantage.

Building anything in Del Mar begins with a neighborhood meeting. The neighborhood meeting, while mandatory, is well intentioned. It’s meant to be a good faith effort by all parties and it’s designed to help reach a compromise balancing the wishes of the applicant with the concerns of the neighbors and the community interest. Often it helps speed up the process. Just as often, the opposite is true.

Following the neighborhood meeting, DRO planning staff prepares a report detailing the code sections to be considered and presents the report to the Design Review Board (DRB). The report, usually well done, is released to the public in advance of a community hearing. What the public doesn’t get is the staff’s private briefing to the DRB chairperson that can slant the hearing.
Next the applicant presents to the DRB. It should be the first hearing – and the last. But there are two potential hiccups: Neighbors can make remarks at this juncture, but only what they can cram into three minutes. The second hitch comes after the hearing is closed to public input and DRB members have made their comments. If it’s clear the project won’t be approved as proposed, the applicant can extend the hearing any number of times by requesting continuances, a stopgap measure designed to wear down protesters with multiple hearings. The DRB should promptly approve, conditionally approve or deny an application based on the evidence presented at the time and place set for hearing.

At the heart of the matter is Del Mar’s bewildering DRO that needs to be professionally rewritten and regularly updated by a company specializing in writing these laws so all parties know where they stand at the start of the process – not at the end of a DRB hearing.

Seven changes to improve Del Mar’s DRO

  1. Fix the language – Hire a professional municipal code-writing company to rewrite the DRO so it’s easy to use and understandable by everyone. “Do it yourself” code writing does not do it.
  2. End continuances – unless a short continuance is necessary for something unrelated to the subject of the hearing.
  3. Provide the neighbors with a qualified ombudsman – The board has an architect to act as an advisor. Neighbors need someone, too. The applicant should foot the bill for an ombudsman who can be sourced from a list compiled by the city.
  4. Provide a form containing the DRO grounds for protest – to help neighbors and interested parties narrowly focus and present their concerns to the DRB.
  5. Lengthen the neighbor presentation time –Give neighbors residing within 300 feet of the proposed construction a collective minimum of 10 minutes for a presentation, five minutes for rebuttal.
  6. Require disclosure of private communications – Any communications of any kind to a member of the board, council or staff concerning a matter before the board should promptly be made part of the public record in that proceeding.
  7. Provide a portal on the city website that will provide access to all prior board decisions in word searchable form – to provide guide posts for the public and consistency in the application of the DRO.

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