CARLSBAD — The fate of the polarizing Agua Hedionda South Shore Lagoon Plan will be decided by a special election on Feb. 23.
After more than three hours of public comment, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with a special election for the hotly debated 85/15 plan, which is estimated to cost the city between $450,000 to $550,000. To pass, the ordinance needs a simple majority.
Mayor Pro Tem Keith Blackburn said he would “not allow money to make the decision.”
“The standards haven’t changed,” Mayor Matt Hall said of the city’s regulations regarding developments. “If anything, it’s gotten tougher. We have more open space than most cities in North County combined. This city has stayed true to its standards since 1994.”
The council had four options, which include rescinding the measure, holding a special election, placing the matter on the June 7 primary or on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
The project spans 203.4 acres east of Interstate 5 and north of Cannon Road. According to Assistant City Manager Gary Barberio, 48.3 acres on the lot along I-5 has been zoned for commercial use since “at least” 1982.
However, in the proposal, which is sponsored by Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso and his company, Caruso Affiliated, only 26.7 acres would be developed with Nordstrom anchoring a mall.
According to Caruso’s plan, 176.7 acres would be designated open space, which would open the land to residents for hiking, habitat preservation and strawberry farming.
The land is currently owned by SDG&E, although Caruso Affiliated has a contract with the utility to purchase the lot.
A resident-led initiative in June led to the council’s unanimous vote in August to go forward with development. However, another resident-led referendum was successful last month, forcing the issue to go to the ballot.
“We have thoroughly reviewed this plan, including extensive technical and environmental studies, and continue to believe the benefits are far greater than any other commercial development that would eventually be built on this land,” according to a statement from the council. “We also respect the referendum process and support Carlsbad voters having an opportunity to make a final decision at the first available opportunity.”
Caruso Affiliated Executive Vice President Matt Middlebrook said residents overwhelmingly support the plan, evident by the 15 percent of voters who signed the initiative in June, compared to 10 percent of those who signed opposing the deal.
He urged the council for a Feb. 23 election and said after their decision it was the right move.
He accused opponents of stalling after months of demanding a vote on the matter.
“We think it’s the right thing to do and is in the best interests of Carlsbad,” Middlebrook said. “We introduced this plan last May. It has been available to the community for almost 10 months. Some of the opponents, who were calling for a vote, simply said rescind the plan.”
Cori Schumacher, no relation to the councilman, spoke on behalf of the opposition group Voters for the Protection of Proposition D.
She stressed to the council more time was needed, thus asking to place the matter on the general election ballot, for residents to read through the hundreds of pages on the plan.
She alleges the main objective of the plan is to “rescind … existing zoning for the property.” Schumacher’s group is not affiliated with Citizens for North County or the North County Advocates, two other groups opposed to the deal.
Barberio, meanwhile, countered the claim is unfounded and cannot be done under the stipulations set forth in Prop D.
Another reason many of the opponents stumped for the November election was to ensure a higher turnout. Bridget Wright of Citizens for North County said special elections generally receive about a 20 percent turnout, with much of those votes coming by mail.
Regardless, Schumacher said the outcome of Tuesday’s decision was disappointing, but not unexpected. In addition, she said her group has developed an election strategy, although she declined to disclose those details.
“No, it’s not surprising,” Schumacher said. “I think the argument that having a special election is a step towards unification is wrong thinking. This is a tipping point for Carlsbad. This is the moment where Carlsbad is standing up and saying enough.”
More than 40 residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting with about a 50/50 split for and against the measure. Only one resident asked for a compromise to place the proposal on the June 7 primary ballot.
Those for the plan cited the increase tax revenue, access to the lagoon, luxury shopping and more dining establishments.
Opponents countered with traffic concerns, a power grab by Caruso Affiliated and a revenue reduction for other Carlsbad businesses for 12 to 18 months after completion of the project and allowing a developer to circumvent environmental reports by using a resident-led initiative drive.
Opponents also lobbed allegations of bullying, threats and civil rights violations against Caruso Affiliated.
A number of residents against the project spoke to the council about intimidation tactics and questioned council leadership for not acting.
As for the council, Michael Schumacher took issue with residents calling the council and city staff compromised and “on the take.” Councilman Mark Packard echoed those sentiments and said none of the staff was deceived.
“Our staff was not deceived nor were they compromised, as some have alluded to,” he added. “This proposal is complex, even for me to understand. Rather than form your own opinions, trust the professionals.”
Feb. 23 was the earliest day possible for the election even though it is well past the 88 days required by state law. The 88 days officially ends Feb. 13, a Saturday, but the next Tuesday, Feb. 16, would have been the scheduled date.
A provision in the law, however, does not allow for a special election the day before, on or after a holiday. Feb. 15 is President’s Day.