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

A view over Morro Hills in Oceanside. Summer 2018
Roland Lizarondo
A view over Morro Hills in Oceanside. Summer 2018
Oceanside's Open Space Initiative Would Give Voters Say Over Development
Oceanside's Open Space Initiative Would Give Voters Say Over Development GUEST: Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

I'm Maureen Cavanagh. Most of the remaining farmland in San Diego is in North County and initiative in Oceanside would make it more difficult to turn farmland into housing developments. But Kate PBS North County Reporter Alison St. John's says commercial farmers claim Measure Y will put them out of business on the northern edge of San Diego County next to the rugged hills of Camp Pendleton lies Morro hills. Dennis Martinek has lived here for decades. Moral hoses about 3400 acres and over the hill goes down and it extends to the Snowy River. It's prime agricultural land. Small agritourism businesses like wineries are beginning to spring up in Morro hills. Landowners are moving away from citrus and avocado and experimenting with crops like coffee and grapes which use less water. Martinek launched the campaign to get the 13000 signatures for the Saur initiative. That's short for save open space and agricultural resources. It's Measure Y on Oceanside Ballot 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. Measure wise goal is to preserve agricultural land in Oceanside but ironically the San Diego Farm Bureau and commercial farmers oppose it. Nagata president of the San Diego Farm Bureau stands in an enormous field of red peppers. We've been farming in Oceanside for about eight years and our family has worked very hard during the war. We lost everything. We came back to Oceanside and work to create what we have today but it hasn't been without struggles. Nagata is the third generation of his family to work on this land in Morro hills. Right now we have competition from Mexico. There's a lot of regulations in California who have high labor costs and the cost of water is astronomical. And then just one more thing on top of it this measure that was bought out by a neighbor is threatening our livelihood. Nagata says putting restrictions on how this land can be used will lower its value as collateral for bank loans that he and other commercial farmers rely on every year before the harvest comes in. But Martin AIK accuses commercial farmers like Nagata of being in league with big developers who are planning future development and funding the opposition to measure why Nagata insists that selling his land to developers is the last thing he wants to do. But one way or another Measure Y will have an effect on housing in Oceanside. Eric grew Valdo to Sandigo knows Economic Development Council says if Measure Y passes it will freeze the current zoning which allows new houses on Two and a half acre lots. If you reduce the value of the land and you make it difficult for farmers to find it much more likely it's going to stand fallow or it's going to be developed into Acre estates that sell for 2 million Booval says measure why will only make it more difficult for Oceanside to keep up with its housing goes Oceanside is only at about 20 percent of its mandated housing needs. It was supposed to build over the last cycle. So it's already behind the eight ball in terms of what it committed to do he says passing measure will make home prices go up faster than Oceanside. Not so says Diane Nygaard a community activist who supports the Saur initiative. She says Oceanside has plenty of space to build new housing in town. Our adopted housing plan for Oceanside we've got plans for 60 200 housing units on land that is zoned for residential Nygaard says with a majority of three votes. City Council has already approved housing on land that was supposed to remain public open space on el-Khoury zone a park in the heart of Oceanside. Why do we think it's at risk because without risk of that happening before our eyes Nygaard wants voters to have the final say on ocean tides remaining green spaces. Maybe they'll never be threatened 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 that we can weigh the benefits to the community. Voters face a difficult choice if they vote no on why it opens the door to denser housing development if they vote yes it could help small farmers but threaten the livelihood of the remaining commercial farmers and result in more land being sold for a million dollar mansions on the outskirts of town. Joining me now is K.P. North County reporter Allison St. John. Allison welcome. Happy to be here Maureen. Now Allison isn't this ballot initiative that we're talking about kind of a window into the core issue in North County politics the preservation of open space versus the need for denser housing in order to bring housing costs down. Yeah it really is a dilemma for virtually all cities. But Oceanside just happens to be the one that still has the most farmland. So this is a dilemma that's facing many communities and with the focus on agricultural land which people get very romantic about you know we have all these romantic associations of hay wagons and green fields. And when you're driving along 076 East you know there are these beautiful green fields on the left and you feel like oh yes I'm still in a place where you know we grow our own food but it is a problem because land is getting is shrinking it's shrinking. And Oceanside just like all the other cities especially along the coast has not lived up to its promises. So it's all very well to say that there's land zoned for housing but in actual practice many cases they get blocked as well because people are afraid of traffic. It's all about the traffic and how you can get from A to B. I want to follow up on that because the claim is that there were already thousands of housing units zoned in residential areas in Oceanside. That argument is compelling. But why haven't they actually been built. Well it's the same that we've seen in many other parts of San Diego where for example the city of San Diego you know they've planned for denser housing around trolley lines which is obviously the way to make a sustainable community. But the local community resists it because they they feel like the trolley lines the public transit isn't up to scratch yet. And so there will be more cars and so once again traffic is the sticking point. So even in town where really higher density is what we need in order to make public transit work there is this digging in of heels of communities who want to preserve their quality of life where they could drive home and park outside on the curb and those days are rapidly shrinking. Maybe what we will find is that the freeways just get completely clogged because we are resisting the kind of density that we need to make public transit work. How is this issue measure why how is that playing out in north county mayors races. I know it's an oceanside issue but it's an issue that also affects a large part of North County. Yes yes well there's nine cities in those county and six of them are reelecting or electing a new mayor. This time around and in all of them really you couldn't distinguish between the candidates quite clearly in terms of their support of denser development or more sustainable development or preserving the quality of life. Everybody is trying to fight to keep the sense of community that they have not lose that that small town feel that many of the small towns in North County have. But at the same time meet their goals and if we don't meet our goals then the house prices go soaring. So I mean just as a prime example of that. But all six cities we've got Vista Carlsbad Escondido and NIDA's Smok is in power. They are all looking at this dilemma and it plays strongly into the candidates who are running for mayor. Apparently everyone in the county is going to be looking at this dilemma in 2020 a similar issue is going to show up on county ballots. Tell us about that. Yes it may be so focused on agricultural land as the oceanside one is but this issue of should we be spreading out into the open spaces around us. Or should we be increasing the density and there is going to be an initiative to save our open spaces on the ballot in 2020. They've already collected the signatures they'd hoped to be on the ballot this year but they didn't collect them in time. But it looks like everybody in the whole county will be really looking closely at this is how do we want to preserve our open space. Do we want to keep sort of a bit of a green belt around us and then build more intensely in the city close to where the public transit is. Or you know do we want to do what most of the developers would like to do frankly is to expand out and build these master planned communities on on open space which in the case of Oceanside is farmland and in the case of the county includes some farmland but also just some of the beautiful areas that people go hiking on. Out in East County undeveloped land undeveloped land. I've been speaking with PBS North County Reporter Alison St. John. Alison thank you. Thank you. Maureen.

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.

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

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.

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