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Oceanside’s Open Space Initiative Would Give Voters Say Over Development

A view over Morro Hills in Oceanside. Summer 2018

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: A view over Morro Hills in Oceanside. Summer 2018

Oceanside's Open Space Initiative Would Give Voters Say Over Development

GUEST:

Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

An initiative in Oceanside would make it more difficult to turn farmland into housing developments. But commercial farmers say Measure Y would put them out of business.

On the northern edge of San Diego County, not far from the rugged hills of Camp Pendleton, lies Morro Hills. It's a refreshing expanse of green fields and trees, dotted with homes, that flashes past as you drive along state Route 76.

Standing on a hilltop and pointing north, Morro Hills resident Dennis Martinek explained why he launched a petition drive to put the "SOAR" initiative on the ballot. "SOAR" is short for Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, and it is known as Measure Y.

"Morro Hills is about 3,400 acres, and over the hill, it goes down and extends to the San Luis Rey River. It's prime agricultural land," Martinek said. "Measure Y would protect the agriculture and, of course, the open space. There's only about 12 percent of agricultural land left in Oceanside."

Small agritourism businesses are beginning to spring up in Morro Hills, like wineries and tasting rooms. Landowners are moving away from citrus and avocado and experimenting with crops like coffee and grapes that use less water.

"So, what Measure Y would do, is require the city council to get voter approval before turning over any open space land or agricultural land for development of higher densities," Martinek said.

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

San Diego Farm Bureau opposed

Martinek said Measure Y aims to preserve agricultural land in Oceanside but, ironically, the San Diego Farm Bureau and commercial farmers oppose it. Neil Nagata is president of the San Diego Farm Bureau and the third generation to work his family's land in Morro Hills.

"We've been farming in Oceanside for about 80 years," Nagata said, standing by rows of red peppers in a huge field ready to be harvested. "Our family has worked very hard. During the war, we lost everything. We came back to Oceanside and worked to create what we have today, but it hasn't been without struggles."

Workers in straw hats bend over the pepper plants and load the harvest onto tractors.

"Right now we have competition from Mexico," Nagata said. "There's a lot of regulations in California, high labor costs and the cost of water is astronomical. And then one more thing on top of it — this measure brought up by a neighbor is threatening our livelihood."

Nagata said putting restrictions on how his land can be used will lower its value as collateral for bank loans, loans that he and other commercial farmers rely on every year, before the harvest comes in.

"We borrow money against the value of the land, so if the land value is less because of these restrictive measures, it makes it difficult to borrow money," Nagata said.

Developers opposed

But Martinek accuses commercial farmers like Nagata of being in league with developers who are planning future developments and funding the opposition to Measure Y.

"We see that the development community is interested," Martinek said. "The particular developer of North River Farms has contributed over $500,000 to oppose Measure Y, because they see opportunities to build housing — and that's where the profits are."

Such accusations make Nagata angry because, he said, selling his land to developers is the last thing he wants to do.

"I think a lot of people don't understand that, for farmers, it's more than just a job, it's actually a lifestyle and it's how we identify ourselves," he said. "If we lose that, it's a negative thing, it's not something we want to do."

Erik Bruvold of the San Diego North Economic Development Council sees Nagata's point of view.

"Two thirds to three-quarters of our agricultural economy is in North County," Bruvold said. "It's important to support agriculture. One of the things voters should think about for Prop Y is what are the farmers that are working that land telling us about what it is, and what it's like to try and do farming in Southern California."

How would it affect housing?

If Measure Y passes, Bruvold said, it will freeze the current zoning in that area, which allows new houses on two-and-half-acre lots.

"If you reduce the value of the land and you make it difficult for farmers to finance," Bruvold said, "it's much more likely it's going to stand fallow, or it's going to be developed into two-acre estates that sell for $2 million each."

Bruvold said Measure Y will only make it more difficult for Oceanside to keep up with its housing goals.

"Oceanside is only at about 20 percent of its mandated housing needs that it was supposed to build over the last cycle, so it's already behind the 8 ball," Bruvold said.

Passing Measure Y will make home prices go up faster in Oceanside, Bruvold said, like they have in Ventura County where a SOAR initiative passed two decades ago.

Not so, said Diane Nygaard, of the group Preserve Calavera.

Nygaard is a community activist who supports the SOAR Initiative. She says Oceanside has plenty of space to build new housing in town.

"Our adopted housing plans for Oceanside: we've got plans for 62 hundred housing units on land that's zoned for residential."

Nygaard said current residents will end up paying more for extra infrastructure like sewer lines and better roads if denser development comes to Morro Hills. And, she said, Measure Y will protect other open space in Oceanside from decisions the city council could make to change zoning in the future.

Protecting open space

Standing on a wide expanse of grassy soccer fields, Nygaard said the council has already approved housing on land that was supposed to remain public open space — citing the El Corazon development in Oceanside.

"Why do we think it's at risk? Because it is at risk. It's happening before our eyes," she said.

Nygaard said a three-vote majority on the city council changed the zoning to put housing and a hotel at the entrance of El Corazon, and it would only take three votes to do the same in Morro Hills. She wants voters to have the final say on whether more housing can be built on Oceanside's last remaining green spaces.

"Maybe they will never be threatened," Nygaard said. "But if they are, we will have a voice, we will be able to say, 'OK, you've got a good project, put it on the ballot and let the people decide,' and we can weigh the benefits to the community."

Voters face a tricky decision: if they vote No on Measure Y, it could open the door to denser housing development that will eventually encroach on Morro Hills. If they vote Yes, it could help small farmers, but threaten the livelihood of the remaining commercial farmers, and result in more farmland being sold in two-and-half-acre lots for mansions on the outskirts of town.

An initiative in Oceanside would make it more difficult to turn farmland into housing developments. But commercial farmers say Measure Y would put them out of business.

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