Proposed North County Housing Development Moves Ahead
The proposed project would add more than 2,000 homes to the hills north of San Marcos and is one of the largest new developments the County Board of Supervisors will vote on later this summer.
The proposed development’s on granite peaks that were zoned for fewer than 100 homes under the county’s General Plan, passed in 2011.
After a hearing that lasted more than six hours, the Planning Commissioners voted 6-to-1 to recommend that the supervisors grant the developer a waiver to build homes, a town center, parks and trails on the site.
It’s not the first time a developer has sought to amend the county’s General Plan to build on this site. The supervisors narrowly rejected what was then called the Merriam Mountain project in 2010.
But since then, the housing situation in San Diego has changed. Many of those who support the plan now said the region desperately needs more affordable housing.
Debra Rosen, CEO of the North San Diego Business Chamber, said her daughter moved to Idaho after not being able to find a job near an affordable home in San Diego.
Ernie Cowan of the North San Diego County Association of Realtors said the lack of housing is affecting the economy.
"Our realtors have been hearing from employers because they’re unable to hire employees because they can’t find a place to live in San Diego County," Cowan said. "Institutions like Cal State San Marcos and Palomar Hospital are suffering because some of their staff have moved up to Riverside County because there are jobs up where they live."
Opponents pointed out that none of the new homes would be affordable. JP Theberge of Cultural Edge Research told the supervisors a San Diegan earning the median income can afford a home of around $300,000. Rita Brandin of Newland Communities, the developer, said about 700 of the 2,135 homes would cost under $500,000, but none as low as $300,000.
Planning Commissioner Michael Beck, the only "no" vote on the planning commission, said the county is missing an opportunity to require developers to include some affordable housing before granting the waiver. He said when the supervisors passed the General Plan for growth in 2011, it included that policy. He was frustrated at staff’s explanation for why does not apply.
"They included this very reasonable policy that for significant General Plan amendments the county is going to require affordable housing," Beck said, "and we just heard a five-minute explanation about why those words are not as clear as they seem to be."
The three local planning groups in the area are opposed to the plan. If the project is built, the population of the Twin Oaks Valley community would almost quadruple, growing from about 2,500 people to 8,600.
Newland Communities' Brandin said the developer will widen Deer Springs Road and invest a total of $56 million in road and traffic improvements. But residents worry that their rural roads, already gridlocked at rush hour, would make safe evacuation impossible in the event of a wildfire.
Wayne Jauber, the head of the Hidden Meadows planning group, called the project "an existential threat" and a "potential death sentence."
The quiet rural area has attracted meditators, and Stephanie Schubert of the Hidden Valley Zen Center told planning commissioners the environmental impact report on the project failed to identify the center as a noise sensitive land use. The surrounding hills are made of granite and Newland Sierra would require blasting to build roads and level housing sites. The project could take 10 years to complete.
The opponent with the deepest pockets is the Golden Door, which has operated an internationally recognized spa on Deer Springs Road for 60 years. The business relies on peaceful surroundings for its clientele.
Kathy Van Ness is Golden Door’s chief operating officer.
"You haven’t heard Golden Door say 'no' to development, Golden Door has never said that," she said. "But I was there when we had to evacuate because of wildfire, and we couldn’t evacuate because the streets were shut down. We’re there investing in the farmland, we understand the water problem, we see it, we live there. It’s all about community and do we want to have places like this? Golden Door is going to fight.”
The Golden Door’s attorneys said they are considering legal action and a possible citizens’ initiative if the supervisors approve the project in September. That would throw the decision of whether to approve Newland Sierra back to a vote of the people.