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Contested housing project takes hit in county board vote

REGION — The San Marcos Highlands housing proposal took a setback at the Sept. 25 San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting, with the panel voting 2-2 on the city of San Marcos proposal to annex county land into the city’s administrative purview.

County Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond voted in favor of the annex, while Dianne Jacob and Nathan Fletcher opposed it. The tie vote means, with Supervisor Greg Cox absent, that the project could come before the board again at its Oct. 16 meeting.

In between now and then, the proposal is currently scheduled to go before the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, a state-sanctioned eight-member regional land use organization, for an Oct. 7 vote. Two members of the County Board of Supervisors also sit as LAFCO members: Jacob and Desmond. Cox serves as a LAFCO alternate.

The debate over the parcel of land that is now the San Marcos Highlands proposal has lasted a decade. It has pitted the owner of the proposal — Vista San Marcos LLC — and pro-development legislators against those concerned about preservation of biological diversity and prevention of sprawl-style housing. The proposal calls for building 189 houses on 265 acres of land.

But because the parcel sits on both city and county land, it needs both city and county approval for the annexation proposal, as well as a LAFCO green light. Jacob, a Republican, said that she rejected the annexation proposal because she opposes what she described as “jurisdictional shopping.”

“The whole idea was for the city, whatever city, and the county to work together where there was a piece of unincorporated property that the city wanted to annex in. In my opinion, that has not occurred in this case” said Jacob. “So, based on this alone, I cannot support this item philosophically and historically because I have always registered my opposition to similar proposed projects where they have done what I called jurisdictional shopping.”

Nathan Fletcher, the Board of Supervisors’ lone Democrat, said he opposed the annexation plan based on concerns brought forward by environmental advocates.

“From my standpoint, we’re all committed to trying to do housing and we obviously wrestle with issues with consistency with the County General Plan. We wrestle with issues of our multiple-species conservation plan,” said Fletcher. “I have some ongoing concerns that I would like more information on surrounding the environmental impacts, the consistency with the General Plan, along with the spheres of influence process in terms of how that gets determined and which jurisdiction gets to decide. And so, it’s not something I’m prepared to support.”

Gaspar sounded a note of despondency when it became clear the board did not have the votes to advance the project.

“There’s always something, there’s always some technicality, there’s always some reason why things can’t happen and where it’s led us in a really dangerous place,” said Gaspar, adding that the county is “100,000 units short as a region to accommodate for the region’s growth” and surmising that it is urgent to do so to for “local businesses and entrepreneurs and local communities (to) stay strong.”

As the mayor of San Marcos, Desmond came under fire for receiving a maximum allowable $800 campaign contribution from the owner of the proposal, Farouk Kubba, while running for his current seat at District 5 County Supervisor. Desmond, speaking before the vote, urged his colleagues to vote on the annexation even if opposed to the project because he said the developer has worked hard to comply with state and environmental safeguards.

“Today’s action is actually to approve an annexation agreement of the project,” said Desmond. “It’s not to evaluate the merits of the project for approval or denial. We’re here to approve compliance with the draft North County Multiple Species Conservation Program, which the county requested and which all of the wildlife agencies have signed off on … The project is the result of many modifications and concessions.”

Kubba also appeared at the meeting, speaking in support of San Marcos Highlands.

“The reason I bought the property was because it was under the sphere of influence of the city of San Marcos and it has been for a long, long time,” said Kubba. “I’m an engineer and I’m trying to see if there’s any logic here. Basically, I think I have the right to process it through the city, which I did, and we basically conformed to all the conditions that were imposed upon us by the county, by the city, by all the other agencies to come up with an implementation agreement. And all we really need is an approval agreement, which is signed off by all these agencies to send it to LAFCO. ”

That signing off did not come, however, and it appears it’s now back to the drawing board for the proposal in the weeks ahead. Cox, who will likely be the determining vote when it comes before the county board again, voted against the project when it was brought before the board as a Project Specific Proposal on Sept. 12, 2018.

“It’s good to see that some members of the Board of Supervisors are taking principled stands against sprawl and destruction of the increasingly scarce habitat and wildlife connectivity in the region,” said JP Theberge, director of the anti-sprawl group Grow the San Diego Way. “While the city of San Marcos may have made a decision to move forward with this project, the impact of its annexation on the county’s goals and objectives need to be reconsidered.”

The Oct. 7 LAFCO meeting will be held at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Center in Room 302.