Fate Of North County Housing Development Rests With San Diego Supervisors
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Photo by Alison St John
Josh Chatten-Brown, land use attorney, Sierra Club
The largest new housing development proposed for North County comes up for a vote before the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday.
Developer Newland Sierra would build more than 2,000 new homes in an area known for its wildlife and quiet retreat centers.
Melodic wind chimes resonate softly through a wooded glade, evoking the serenity and peace the Golden Door retreat center and spa is known for. People pay handsomely for the chance to stay in this secluded spot, with Japanese gardens and trails leading through shady valleys and rock-strewn hills. It lies on 600 acres a few miles west of Interstate 15, north of Escondido.
“It’s a great place to connect and rejuvenate, recharge and then move forward,” said Denise Price, who credits the place for helping her through a difficult life transition. “What’s really great about the Golden Door is that it’s just peaceful and tranquil.”
Price now represents the Golden Door in its battle to preserve its natural surroundings from encroaching development.
“It’s also surrounded by some sensitive habitat,” she said. “If you look around the county, some of the most sensitive plants and animals are actually located just north of here.”
A key wildlife corridor, part of what’s known as the “Multiple Species Conservation Area,” runs through the nearby hills.
The Golden Door is not the only retreat center in this quiet valley: a Catholic church and a Zen center have existed here for decades on nearby Sarver Lane. A stone Buddha and a meditation hall can be seen through the oaks, next to the two-lane road.
But time may be running out for this rural corner of San Diego.
The Merriam Mountains, just north of this valley, is the site of a proposed master planned development. The project, called Newland Sierra, would include seven interconnected communities, made up of 2,135 single-family and townhomes, plus parks, trails and a town center.
Construction in these granite hills would involve years of blasting to create housing sites and new roads. Price said the project would generate thousands of new car trips a day, putting an end to the tranquility of the valley.
From a hilltop at the top of a trail at the Golden Door, Price pointed across the valley below to the ridge where Newland Sierra would be built. At a time when San Diego County is in urgent need of more housing, the empty hillside is a tempting site for new homes with great views, not far from Interstate 15.
But Price, who has a background in land use planning, said the development is a prime example of the kind of urban sprawl that was popular in the 1980s but has been avoided since then.
“Because it doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it,” she said. “We’re talking about putting a city the size of Del Mar right behind that mountain. There’s not a roadway system to support it, we don’t have the resources, water and other infrastructure.
“The development that they propose should be happening in the urban centers where the transportation systems are there that can support these projects," she said.
Just a 15-minute drive south, next to Cal State San Marcos University, construction is underway on North City, a new multi-story, mixed-use housing, education and retail development.
Erik Bruvold, CEO of the San Diego North Economic Development Council, said North County has created 10,000 new jobs since the recession ended and employers want to see more housing built for their employees. Bruvold said it’s not a matter of building in either the city or the country.
“We need all of the above,” he said. “This is an exciting project in San Marcos, the North City project that’s building in a more dense, urban way. And I think we need to be aware that there is still a robust demand for suburban family kinds of forms in North County, where people want a detached house with a yard to raise their kids and have a bigger family.”
Bruvold estimates about 4,000 new jobs in the life sciences, telecommunications and defense industry clusters pay well enough to afford the single-family homes proposed in Newland Sierra.
“These are reasonable, well-paying, middle-class jobs that can afford the kind of housing you’d see at Newland Sierra,” he said. “I know it doesn’t sound affordable, but houses in the $500,000, $600,000, $700,000 range are really important kinds of housing that we need in North County to cut down on the number of people that are making these hour, hour and 15-minute-long commutes.”
Millions of dollars have been spent on community plans to preserve the land, tucked between state Route 78 and Interstate 15. But millions more have been spent to convert it into housing. This is not the first time developers have come to San Diego County Supervisors with proposals to build thousands of new homes here. The last time, in 2009, the board narrowly rejected it.
But the pressure to build more houses, even if it means abandoning years of community planning and environmental stewardship, could spell a different future for this quiet valley.
The largest housing development proposed in North County comes up for a vote before the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday. Newland Sierra would build more than 2,000 homes in an area known for its wildlife and quiet retreat centers.
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.