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La Jollans win appeal of San Diego’s environmental findings on residential project in Country Club area

An overview of Encelia Drive (top) and Romero Drive shows two proposed houses superimposed.
An overview of Encelia Drive (top) and Romero Drive shows two proposed houses superimposed, as presented to the San Diego City Council by land-use attorney Julie Hamilton.
(City of San Diego)

Representing the wishes of the La Jolla Community Planning Association and a handful of residents of La Jolla’s Country Club neighborhood, opponents of a planned residential development won an appeal of the city of San Diego’s findings that the project would not have a significant environmental impact.

Land-use attorney Julie Hamilton and La Jolla architect Phil Merten convinced the San Diego City Council at its Feb. 1 meeting that the project merits additional environmental review before proceeding with construction.

The project calls for coastal development and site development permits to demolish a two-story, 5,022-square-foot single-family home at 7248 Encelia Drive that was damaged by a landslide that occurred at 7231 Romero Drive and build single-family residences on each property.

The Encelia property would get a three-story, 8,641-square-foot home with an open carport and site improvements, and the Romero property would have a three-story, 4,945-square-foot house with a 3,267-square-foot basement/garage and site improvements.

In 2019, the Community Planning Association voted down the project “due to excessive bulk and scale, including height and form, and due to the lack of step-backs of the facade, which makes the structure out of character with the surrounding community.”

As part of the project’s environmental review, a hearing officer with the city Development Services Department approved it last September and adopted a final mitigated negative declaration, which indicates a project either will not have a significant environmental impact or the impact can be diminished through mitigation.

At the Feb. 1 City Council meeting, planners from Development Services said that while the project could have “significant effects on the environment with respect to cultural resources … and tribal resources,” a mitigation monitoring and reporting program would “reduce all impacts to below a level of significance.”

Hamilton argued that the project would yield the “two biggest homes on this hillside, a hillside that has already failed. There is a dispute as to whether the remediation for the failure was adequate. If you are wrong about this, this could have devastating effects.”

Neighbor Ronald Schachar said that if the hillside fails again, “my house will be in the ocean.” He said the area needs to be “evaluated properly.”

City planners insisted the appeal did not provide sufficient arguments to change the mitigated negative declaration and require something further. Staff also said the project “is compatible with surrounding development … and complies with all height and bulk regulations.”

Other issues listed in the appeal included the floor area ratio (the size of a building in relation to its lot) and the overall building height.

Merten said the negative declaration should not be certified because “the project description and staff report are erroneous in that they underrepresent the size of the project.” Certain enclosed areas of the houses were not included in the measurement, yet “contribute to the perceived mass and bulk of the structure,” he said.

Further, he said, the overall height of the houses would be more than 40 feet each, though only 30 feet is allowed.

During public comments, LJCPA President Diane Kane told the council that “the projects fail to comply with several provisions of local planning code” and that the “bulky overscaled dwellings … fail to maintain streetscape integrity and transition to their neighbors.”

Others called the project “inappropriate for the area.”

During council deliberations, Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, agreed that further environmental analysis is merited.

He made a motion to grant the appeal and set aside the city’s previous environmental determination. “The appellant makes fair arguments and presents evidence with an adequate foundation of facts. … It is requested that the planning director reconsider the MND and prepare a revised environmental document as appropriate … [that provides] further analysis of the impacts to aesthetics, as both project houses exceed allowable height and/or bulk regulations.”

The council was tasked with considering only the validity of the environmental determination, not the development permits associated with the project. However, those permits also have been appealed, and that issue will be heard by the San Diego Planning Commission at a future meeting.

Kane later said she was “stunned” at the outcome of the council meeting, given that LJCPA regularly appeals city decisions that contradict its own, only for the city to deny the appeal and keep its original findings.

“I went into the meeting expecting the same response we usually get, but they actually heard us,” Kane said. ◆