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Del Mar Plans To Use Fairgrounds To Fulfill Affordable Housing Mandate

The grandstand is shown at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, April 14, 2021.

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: The grandstand is shown at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, April 14, 2021.

With a median home price of more than $2.5 million, according to Zillow, Del Mar has an affordable housing issue.

The city needs to zone for 113 affordable housing units for its Sixth Cycle Housing Element Update to comply with the state’s mandate.

Listen to this story by Alexander Nguyen.

That number was determined by the San Diego Association of Governments based on the state's sixth cycle Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which runs from 2021 to 2029.

Del Mar only created one affordable housing unit in the fifth cycle (2013-2020) and the affordable housing unit allocations from the last cycle were added to this cycle for a total of 113 units. The city submitted its housing element update for certification April 9, a week before the state's April 15 deadline.

"Like every other city in the county and the state, (Del Mar) has to provide a means for affordable housing to be built," Del Mar City Councilman David Druker said. "And you do that by changing your zoning."

The city plans to do that through a combination of more accessory dwelling units, commonly known as granny flats, and rezoning the North Commercial district. Still, the bulk of affordable units — 51 units — is planned for the Del Mar Fairgrounds land. While the fairgrounds is within the city's jurisdiction, Del Mar doesn't own the land — the state does.

Reported by Alexander Nguyen

For the plan to work, Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland said it needs buy-in from everyone.

"So we need in-principle agreement from the state level that oversees the 22nd Agricultural District, all the way to the fairgrounds Board and the fairgrounds staff," she said.

The 22nd District Agricultural Association oversees the fairgrounds. In February, the board voted against entering into a memorandum of understanding with the city to build on the land.

“The Board took that action because it felt it was premature to make a binding commitment, which would trigger several legal obligations upon the fairgrounds," board president Richard Valdez told KPBS in an email statement.

Gaasterland said the city council is very committed to this idea and is looking to work with the fairgrounds on a new MOU. Valdez said the fair board is open to the idea and has formed an ad hoc committee to discuss the idea with the city. The committee has yet to meet and no discussion with the city has taken place, he said.

The city and the fairgrounds board have three years to come to an agreement. Otherwise, Del Mar will have to resort to its contingency plan and rezone the city's north and south bluffs for development. That's something city council members and the public do not want to see happen.

"People do not want to see that part of the bluff developed with so many houses," Druker said.

In March 2020, voters in Del Mar defeated Measure G that would have allowed a luxury hotel resort, condominiums and businesses on the 17-acre north bluff above the city's dog beach.

Opponents of the measure said development would destroy an environmentally sensitive area. There were also concerns about the impact on the sandstone bluffs.

Both Gaasterland and Druker were against the measure. If the city could not reach an agreement with the fairgrounds, Gaasterland said the city would try to work with the state's Department of Housing and Community Development(HCD) to find a different solution.

"What we will be going to HCD with is, 'Hey, these are fragile coastal bluffs, let's find a different solution. Let's do it differently in Del Mar,'" she said.

Laura Nunn, the chief of policy and education at the San Diego Housing Federation, said what the city is doing is a step in the right direction but questioned the concerns raised over the bluffs.

"Environment and safety concerns are obviously something that should be taken seriously," she said. "I think that the question is that really stands out there is, 'Is it a concern about safety or is it a lack of interest of having affordable housing in the city.'"

Del Mar is one of the least diverse cities in the county and affordable housing will help with diversity by allowing people who work in the service industry in the city to be able to afford to live there, Nunn said. With its 113 units, it is one of the lowest allocations of required affordable units in the region, she said.

Gaasterland said the city and its residents are committed to creating affordable housing in Del Mar.

"Our council is absolutely united and unanimous on this," she said. "The people of Del Mar want this because we see it as something that will be an advantage in so many ways."

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