Wednesday, December 9, 2009
A development that would bring thousands of new homes to rural north San Diego County failed to get approval from the San Diego Board of Supervisor yesterday. But the Merriam Mountain project near Interstate 15 may be back on the agenda in January.
The Stonegate/Merriam Mountain development is a huge master planned project designed to put more than 2,600 homes in the hills west of Interstate 15, north of Escondido.. It would also dedicate more than 1,000 acres of open space, almost 90 acres of parks, and 18 miles of trails.
As Jo Perring, the project manager, told the board at the packed public meeting, it’s the result of years of high stakes negotiations with various interest groups.
“The project consolidates 58 parcels into one ownership,” Perring said, “creating the potential for comprehensive master planning with an unprecedented array of features and community benefits.”
One of the benefits for the supervisors is that the developer would spend $63 million on infrastructure, like widening roads. That’s something the county has no money to do.
Like every jurisdiction in San Diego, the county is in the process of figuring out where to put a million more people predicted to arrive here by 2020.
District 5 Supervisor, Bill Horn, wants Merriam Mountain to get an exemption from the General Plan, which suggests only about 300 homes be built there.
But Board Chair Dianne Jacob points out the decision to approve or deny the project could set a precedent for the whole backcountry. “This project I believe has ramifications for the entire unincorporated area, not just District 5 or the north county area,” she said.
In the last few years, contentious issues have emerged as major barriers to growth in the backcountry. One of them is water.
Alan Binns, who lives in the Deer Springs area near the proposed development, says rural residents are already being forced to cut off watering their fruit trees
“I’m a little confused, like a lot of people in San Diego county are confused,” Binns said. “Are we having a water problem or is there not a water problem?”
In fact, the Vallecitos Water District doesn’t have to guarantee it can provide water services to the new homes until after the supervisors decide whether to approve the project.
Another issue is fire. The development does include fire breaks and a new fire station. But Bruce Tebbs with the Deer Springs Fire Protection District Board says the problem is people won’t be able to get out if there’s a major wildfire.
“There is no evacuation plan,” Tebbs reminded the Supervisors. “And because there is no evacuation plan, there can be no fire protection plan.”
Again, the planning process requires an evacuation plan, but not until after the project is denied or approved.
More than 100 people signed up to oppose the project but over 50 people registered equally passionate support. Dennis Sullivan of Escondido said he wants young families to be able to live in San Diego County.
“Over the last ten or 15 years, they have been forced to move into south Riverside, to Temecula, Murrieta and Hemet,” Sullivan said, “because they could not find affordable quality housing in North County.”
But Lael Montgomery of Valley Center begged the Supervisors to remember that they have spent the last ten years working on a plan for where to put growth: the General Plan Update. That Update, to be approved next year, says the area where Stonegate wants to built more than 2,000 homes should have fewer than 100 new houses.
“Stonegate Merriam un-glues the General Plan’s most basic principals. Worse, it sets the precedent for a convoy of engorged projects that are coming fast behind it.”
After five hours of testimony, Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater Price voted against the project, Bill Horn and Greg Cox supported it. Supervisor Ron Roberts was away on other business in Sacramento, and without a tie breaker, the project was left hanging. Supervisor Bill Horn, who has been heavily lobbied by the developer, isn’t giving up.
“The applicant has spent $1.5 million in fees to the County of San Diego,” Horn said. “I think they have a right to be heard by the full board.”
It is now up to Supervisor Ron Roberts to decide whether to resurrect the matter. He has 30 days to decide whether or not to reopen the public hearings on the high stakes project.