Del Mar Heights Elementary rebuild project gets final approval

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DEL MAR, Calif. – After years of delays, the 60-year-old Del Mar Heights Elementary campus will get what school advocates say is a much-needed and modern rebuild.

At Tuesday’s meeting, San Diego City Council unanimously approved design plans for the public school and denied an appeal to delay construction.

“The sky’s the limit. These kids have been waiting too long and we are going to celebrate,” said Ian Phillip, a physical education teacher at the elementary. “For all my teaching family, we get to go back to our school and we deserve it.”

According to city documents, in 2018, the district started redesign plans followed by community members passing Measure MM to help pay for costs.

The rebuild project came to a halt when the nonprofit group “Save the Field” filed its first of several lawsuits in 2020.

“The teachers had finally moved out of their classrooms and were on the verge of starting construction,” said Erica Halpern, president of the Del Mar Heights Board of Trustees. “That was the moment a couple of neighbors chose to sue the district. It is beyond disappointing that these folks have gone to extraordinary lengths to try and stop or delay the reconstruction of our neighborhood school especially after we changed the design three times to accommodate their views.”

Neighbors and parents who belong to Save the Field appealed the project, expressing concern for ocean view obstruction, environmental impacts to Torrey Pines State reserve, limited public access to parks and fire hazards.

“The project is far too close to the reserve itself and it could decrease that impact by moving those buildings farther away and that would be better for fire protection as well,” said Ted Griswold, an attorney representing Save the Field.

Teachers and students have been relocated during the lawsuit limbo, causing stress for many.

“Our kindergarten through third-grade kids are at Del Mar Hills and fourth through sixth are at Ocean Air School, so for families like my family, we have kids at two schools and one of our kids has to ride a bus and it’s an extra half hour going there and coming back and then pick up times are off,” said Jesse Barrick, a Del Mar Heights parent.

Several kids were among the nearly 170 comments submitted to the council in support of the project.

“The last two years have been so weird. We could have all used support from our brothers and sisters that attend the same school but instead, we have been separated,” one student said.

A few community members supported the appeal to delay construction. One parent thought it would be more time and cost-effective to modernize the existing building rather than completely tear it down.

In the end, city staff refuted all claims on the appeal and Councilmember Joe LaCava introduced a motion to deny the appeal and approve the city planning commission’s project recommendation.

Del Mar Heights would have reopened for the 2021-2022 school year under the initial construction schedule, however, now it’s unclear how long the newly approved construction will take.

When completed, it will feature a 66,800 square foot campus and will welcome more than 530 students.

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