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Oceanside Open Space Development Initiative Heads To November Ballot

Morro Hills, May 8th 2018

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: Morro Hills, May 8th 2018

The Oceanside City Council has asked for an independent report on a citizen’s initiative that would limit development of the city’s remaining open space. If the council OKs the initiative, it will appear on the November ballot.

Supporters say the Save our Open Space and Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, initiative would preserve the rolling farmland called Morro Hills, but the San Diego County Farm Bureau opposes it.

Dennis Martinek has lived in Morro Hills for nearly 40 years. His next door neighbor has planted grapes on his two-and-half-acre lot.

“This is an example of someone moving from one crop — it was primarily avocados and macadamia nuts — to now trying grapes,” Martinek said, pointing to rows of young vines. “They require less water and we’re hoping less maintenance."

Martinek and his neighbor want to keep Morro Hills agricultural, in spite of challenges like higher labor and water costs. Oceanside still has about 3,500 acres of agricultural land tucked into the northeast corner, next to Fallbrook and bordering Camp Pendleton.

Martinek wants to stop the housing developments that are visibly encroaching on the rolling farmland farther down the country road. The SOAR initiative would require a vote of the people before the city could change existing land use zoning on agricultural land and open space.

Supporters collected more than 11,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. The city council voted Wednesday night to request an independent report on the initiative.

Martinek acknowledges more housing is needed in Oceanside, but he said there is plenty of space to develop housing elsewhere in the city.

“Over 85 percent of the land is already devoted to housing and commercial projects in Oceanside,” he said, “so basically less than 15 percent is agriculture, and if you build on that, it’s going to be gone forever.”

Farm Bureau Opposes SOAR initiative

But Neil Nagata, whose family has farmed here commercially for three generations, said the initiative will only make it more difficult for farmers to stay viable.

“This is not what it seems to be,” Nagata said. “It suggests that it’s going to save agricultural lands — it really actually hurts agriculture.”

Nagata is the president of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, and the board of directors made a unanimous decision to oppose the SOAR initiative in Oceanside.

“The reason is it actually doesn’t help agriculture, it hurts agriculture. We depend on land values as a significant part of how we borrow money,” Nagata said. “This will actually hurt our ability to stay in business because every burden that we add just makes it more competitive for Mexico to harm our local agriculture.”

He said if farmers go bankrupt, the land won’t stay green — avocado trees, for example, will simply die.

“If you don’t have enough money to cut them down,” he said, “you just leave them there and there’s plenty of examples of these dead and dying trees. We just had the fire come through Fallbrook, and that came right into our area.”

The minimum lot size in Morro Hills is currently two-and-a-half acres, and there are properties of this size where avocado tree stumps are a telltale sign of small “gentleman” farmers who could not pay their water bills. Nagata said property owners would be more likely to keep the land green and well-tended it they could buy smaller residential lots.

Martinek believes that, without the SOAR initiative, developers will snap up the land and push for zoning changes because farmland is cheaper than urban land.

“The one thing about building out here is that it might be cheaper for the developer as far as the cost of the land,” Martinek said, “but it’s going to cost residents of the city more because of the additional infrastructure and services.“

The city would have to put in better roads, water utilities and pay for more police and fire services if developers build denser housing developments there, Martine said.

Preserving Morro Hills is the primary motivation for the SOAR initiative, but the measure would also affect other open space around Oceanside.

“There’s a serious concern that if this (land) is built on, then it’s gone,” Martinek said. “And of course the SOAR initiative applies to parks and open spaces, and habitat areas. Those should be protected, we don’t want development on those.”

If the council gives its OK, Oceanside voters will decide in November if no new development can happen on city land currently zoned agricultural or open space, without a positive vote from the people.

Roland Lizarondo,

The Oceanside City Council has asked for an independent report on a citizen’s initiative that would limit development of the city’s remaining open space. If the council OKs the initiative, it will appear on the November ballot.

Note: The original version of this story said Neil Nagata's family had farmed in the area for three decades. In fact, his family has farmed in the area for three generations. We regret the error.

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