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Somethings rotten in the state of Del Mar

Last week, after months of speculation and false starts, the Del Mar Fair Board unveiled three designs for a 200,000 square-foot shopping and entertainment complex on 14 acres of state owned property across from the Del Mar Fair grounds on the doorstep of the San Dieguito River Valley. The neighbors were not amused. With 13,000 signatures in hand against a project they had not yet seen, over 200 unhappy residents, planning board representatives, environmentalists, property owners, business leaders, office-holders and developers lined up to speak against building a regional commercial shopping center on the banks of the San Dieguito River. Even the governor signaled his irritation with the process when he removed the board's president. This colossal political and public relations flop might have been avoided had the directors of the Fair Board heeded the lessons of an entire decade of land-use wars that should have ended with last November's passage of Propositions M and K. These two land-use initiatives passed because they were supported by the same kind of coalition that opposes the Del Mar Fairgrounds shopping center. The message then is the same as now -- when designing projects that require public approval, particularly in beloved and sensitive areas, engage the neighbors early and often in the design and planning process. Failing to do so in the Del Mar Fairgrounds case may have doomed even a promising project proposed by a local developer. Engagement does not mean asking community planning groups to respond after the fact, or to deliver a wish list to an architect. It means enlisting the talent and experience of a broad base of environmental, community and public interest groups from the start in an on-going planning process. This is a difficult way to go -- ask anyone who spent over 20 months negotiating the land use plan for Proposition M. And in this case, there is no shortage of interest and talent to draw on from the communities surrounding the river valley. For example, who knows more about the habitat sensitive San Dieguito River Valley than its own Community Advisory Committee, or how to build a community-compatible retail center better than Del Mar Plaza's visionary developer, David Winkler? Certainly, veteran members of the many planning boards in adjacent communities have never hesitated to show up for a meaningful negotiation. While most will agree that the current dirt parking lot is not the most attractive use in a wetland, neither is a Disney-like entertainment center. Alternative ideas floating around run the gamut from complete wetland restoration to a golf and roller hockey facility to a small-village style retail and nature center. And it may be that in the end, no viable commercial enterprise will be environmentally compatible with the semi-rural intent of the Torrey Pines Community Plan for the San Dieguito River Valley which implies a less invasive use for the site than conventional shopping center plans contemplate. Certainly, the developers who negotiated with the community on the Proposition M and Proposition K plans ended up with developments far different from anything they had done before which means they will be assuming a much greater risk. Engaging a wide range of interests in the fairgrounds project likely would have similar results -- a far more creative but riskier venture. Governments are usually not very good at this type of thing. With a $60 million river restoration project about to begin on the doorstep to this very unpopular project, the Del Mar Fairgrounds directors, the San Dieguito River Valley JPA and the city of Del Mar should open up a public conversation around defining a vision for the gateway to San Diego's finest open space park. But with a planning process as mucked up as this one, even the best of ideas for this 14 acres likely will, like Hamlet's dear Ophelia, end up floating face-down in the San Dieguito River. Ross is a member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board.

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