Betty Wheeler | Seaview Avenue
Nineteen eighty-six was the birth year of Measure B, a citizens’ initiative requiring voter approval of specific plans for large commercial developments in downtown Del Mar. Its demise was officially pronounced at the July 2, 2018 City Council meeting, based on an appellate court decision invalidating a similar Malibu measure. (The court ruled that the measure improperly authorized initiatives that lodge the exercise of administrative or adjudicatory powers, rather than legislative power, in the electorate.) The 1980s author of Measure B, as it turns out, is the 2018 Mayor of Del Mar; Dwight Worden figuratively officiated at both the birth and the death of the Downtown Initiative. Importantly, the Council has nonetheless taken steps to ensure a public vote on the last undeveloped downtown property large enough to trigger Measure B’s public vote requirement.
It’s worth revisiting how Measure B came to be, richly captured in this report from Chuck Newton’s 1986 account for the Sandpiper:
A while back, a pair of personable developers showed up and bought our only shopping center, which is small and comfortably dowdy,…with a plan to redevelop the center with a clutch of boutiques and restaurants for out-of-town spenders. The 600 cars from the parking garage would choke the town’s center… This scheme further incensed some citizens who had been meeting, at one home and another, to fret about our city council – the first in many years to favor development any time, any place… And over a span of months, a plan evolved. We got up an initiative petition which attracted 999 voters’ signatures in just three weeks; a record number for our town, in record time.
The proposed ordinance’s purpose, Newton noted, “was arresting: It required a majority of voters to approve any development plans for certain large commercial sites. Thus it reversed the usual course of events in which the community must fight back a developer’s proposal. Now the community could negotiate for projects which the entire town would sanction by its vote.”
Newton colorfully described the campaign: “The developers brought in hired guns from out of town to knock on doors and to conjure fanciful literature… Phone lines sizzled. Rumors, portending both good and bad, were wholesaled, retailed, then discarded for fresh fodder in hysterical cycles. At last came the magic day of the vote, and we won! Not small, but big, with 60% of the vote in a record turnout.”
And right away, the bold citizens’ initiative served its purpose well, with robust community participation helping to shape specific plans for the Del Mar Plaza and the Del Mar Hotel (now L’Auberge Del Mar). As a result of Measure B, the Plaza developers collaborated with the community to reduce the proposed scale of the Plaza, add public plazas, and guarantee a market for 25 years. And after the first proposal for the Hotel was voted down, the project was modified and major funding for the public library was included as one of several exceptional public benefits, gaining approval for the Hotel Plan at the second public vote.
In later years, the Garden Specific Plan (the predecessor plan for 941 Camino del Mar) received a positive public vote after substantial community input into the Plan; and Measure J, the downtown revitalization specific plan, was placed on the ballot pursuant to Measure B and voted down. In both instances, Del Mar citizens were
empowered to vote on major proposals.
Today, the vacant lot at 941 Camino del Mar is the only undeveloped property that would be subject to Measure B, which applies only to downtown developments on lots over 25,000 sq. ft., or floor area of over 11,500 sq. ft. Acknowledging Measure B’s unenforceability, the City Council took another path to providing for a public vote on the 941 project on the Nov. 2018 ballot, using its independent authority to put items on the ballot.
With the citizens’ ability to vote on the 941 Project secured, we can bid farewell to Measure B with equanimity, because it served its purpose well: major downtown projects gained approval only after a public vote, and only after significant public participation ensured that they reflect the special Del Mar character that our citizens work so diligently to protect.