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North County Housing Proposal Approved by Planning Commission

View of Merriam Mountain from the Twin Oaks Community

Photo by Alison St John

Above: View of Merriam Mountain from the Twin Oaks Community

UPDATE: 12:00 p.m., June 29, 2018

The San Diego County Planning Commission voted six to one on Thursday to recommend the Newland Sierra project be approved. The 2,000-home proposed development near San Marcos now goes to the County Board of Supervisors for possible approval.

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A plan to build a master-planned community of more than 2,000 new homes in the hills of North County goes before the San Diego County Planning Commission Thursday. The project will be one of the biggest developments coming before the County Board of Supervisors for approval this summer.

The Newland Sierra project pits a developer’s dream for how to solve San Diego’s housing shortage against years of community planning.

Newland Communities, the developer, describes itself as the largest private developer of planned residential and urban mixed-use communities in the United States, with projects in 14 states. The company proposes to build a community of seven distinct neighborhoods among the granite hills north of Escondido and west of Interstate 15.

In a promotional video, Newland’s Senior Vice President Rita Brandin, said the project will help meet North County’s needs.

“Growth and development always has resistance, but we know from talking to the communities, from talking to individuals, and from talking to businesses that this need for housing is real,” she said. “Our goal is to create homes and an environment for families for the next generation of North County.”

Opponents of the project include three local planning groups.

Twin Oaks Valley resident Kathe Robbins lives in a house that overlooks the Merriam Mountain ridge where the project would be built. She fought a previous plan to build on Merriam Mountain that was narrowly rejected by the County Supervisors in 2010. Robbins cites the county’s General Plan for growth, which passed in 2011, after 10 years of community input.

“Several years ago the County Board of Supervisors passed a General Plan for the county," she said, "and in the plan for the area called Merriam Mountains was actually downzoned from what it had been.“

Photo by KPBS Staff

The location of the Newland Sierra project is shown on this map.

The General Plan called for fewer than 100 additional homes, plus a commercial and retail center. Brandin did not make herself available for this story but issued a statement:

“Instead of a massive commercial and office development and 99 large lot homes for which the property is zoned in the General Plan, we believe — given the region's housing crisis — that the better choice is to build attainably-priced housing for the next generation of North County families. We are proposing a true community, with seven distinct neighborhoods, multiple parks and 19 miles of trails with a small town center, and we'll preserve more than 61 percent of the property as open space."

Robbins questions whether there will be enough water to sustain a community of this size, and she remembers the fire that broke out just north of here along state Route 76 earlier this year. She worries that the roads won't be able to handle normal daily traffic, never mind emergencies.

“Deer Springs Road is the main road that leads to the I-15 freeway,” she said, pointing down the hill to the road that winds through the valley below. “This will be widened to four lanes, although at the interchange there is no current real plan to improve the interchange, so traffic will just stop at the freeway, which is already clogged up and down the 15.”

The nearby Golden Door Spa is opposed to the project, which would involve years of blasting and construction traffic to construct the community on the solid granite hillsides. Land use attorney Clif Williams, who represents Golden Door, said Newland Sierra won’t help Interstate 15 handle the extra traffic.

“The Newland Sierra project puts tens of thousands of new trips on the I-15 freeway and pays no mitigation,” he said. “All the agencies that do transportation — they haven’t invested in this area because the county General Plan calls for no development.”

Williams said the community won’t provide affordable housing but will generate major profits for the developer. He said Newland Communities won’t reveal its purchase price but noted the last developer’s project was rejected by the supervisors.

“We absolutely agree that San Diego needs more housing and the San Diego County General Plan has 64,000 units in it that can be built today,” Williams said. “This is in addition to that. It’s essentially a place where the developer got very cheap land and they are trying to up-zone it.”

The Newland Sierra project is only one of half a dozen new development projects coming to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for approval this summer. If approved, they would build a total of about 10,000 new homes in San Diego’s semi-rural unincorporated areas that were previously off-limits for development.

The County Planning Commission considers Thursday whether to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve or deny the project. The hearing is at the county’s offices on Overland Avenue in Kearny Mesa.

Roland Lizarondo,

A plan to build a master-planned community of more than 2,000 new homes in the hills of North County goes before the San Diego County Planning Commission Thursday. The Newland Sierra project will be one of the biggest developments coming before the County Board of Supervisors for approval this summer.

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