The Coast News Group
A permit application at the site of the long-proposed 189-unit San Marcos Highlands Project in 2016. File photo
Cities Community Community News San Marcos

Council advances contested housing project debated for decades

SAN MARCOS — Back when the city of San Marcos first began consideration of the San Marcos Highlands housing development proposal, Michael Jordan had yet to win a championship, Bill Clinton had yet to become president and the Soviet Union had yet to collapse. The year was 1990 and a different proposal, not called San Marcos Highlands but situated on essentially the same land plot, was brought before the City Council at the time.

Almost three decades later, at the Sept. 10 City Council meeting, the San Marcos Highlands proposal took one step closer toward realization when an affirmative vote sent the proposal off for consideration before both the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCO). The 189 single-family homes proposal sitting on 265 acres of land aims to annex county land into the city as part of the permitting process for the proposed development, needing an affirmative nod from both the County Board of Supervisors and LAFCO to do so.

City Council technically was not voting on the proposal itself. After much contestation by environmental advocates concerned with “sprawl” style housing and protecting biological diversity, City Council approved the housing proposal in a 4-1 vote in 2016 during the tenure of Mayor Jim Desmond, who is now a county supervisor. Instead, the Sept. 10 vote centered around the annexation agreement, needed because the parcel sits on land owned by both the county and city.

The annexation agreement had previously been tied up in a lawsuit pitting the Endangered Habitats League against the city of San Marcos and the developer of the project, Vista San Marcos Ltd. The parties came to a legal settlement in April and the terms of the settlement could not conflict with whatever annexation agreement the city of San Marcos subsequently drafted.

Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, said he had reviewed the annexation agreement and saw it as conforming with the legal settlement agreement. Silver added that the settlement agreement, per the request of Vista San Marcos Ltd, is currently not a public document is held under seal.

“Endangered Habitats League is pleased that the annexation agreement will work in a complementary manner with the settlement agreement and we look forward to working with all involved on implementation,” Silver said via email.

But some concerned community members opposed to the project sounded the alarm when they saw that the annexation agreement was not on the regular agenda, but on the consent calendar, where the item would not receive a public hearing and discussion by the City Council. Several of them signed up to speak at the meeting, and as a result, the item was pulled from the consent calendar and morphed into a standard agenda item.

The person central to rallying them to come to the meeting to begin with was Lesley Williams, a biology professor at Palomar College who has opposed the project in her private capacity as a city resident.

“I am disappointed that a 165-page annexation agreement between the City and the Country regarding this project is on the Consent agenda for Tuesday,” said Williams via email. “Given the challenges, ecological impact, and historical contention associated with this project, the City should not rush this annexation through with a rubber-stamp. The councilmembers should postpone the vote so that the public has an opportunity to thoroughly review the annexation agreement and offer comment before approval.”

The vote was not postponed, though, and the project advanced after about 40 minutes of discussion. One of those discussants was Michael McSweeney, a lobbyist for the Building Industry Association. He argued that San Marcos Highlands exemplifies what he described as the county’s housing supply crisis, with more demand existing than supply on the market.

“We need to increase the supply. We’ve doubled the population while building permitting activity dropped by 55%,” said McSweeney. “You need to increase supply, so approve housing projects.”

McSweeney also argued that affordable housing could only be financed if other types of housing is built first.

Councilman Randy Walton, though, took exception with McSweeney’s claim. He said that he believes that the deeper crisis is the cost of new housing hitting the market in the region.

“I’m one of those who doesn’t buy that it’s a simple supply and demand problem,” said Walton. “I think that if you can afford more for than 5 or 600 grand, there’s plenty of supply out there. If you can’t, there’s no supply. So, there is a supply-demand problem, but on the lower to moderate priced housing, not on the high-end housing.”

Walton said that within San Marcos, data shows that those dynamics have played out.

Mayor Rebecca Jones responded by stating that the “housing complied with the General Plan” and that the City Council “must comply with the general plan.”

Walton was careful to say that the city had already entered into a binding agreement for San Marcos Highlands, though, calling his broader argument “immaterial” to the discussion at-hand.

Chris Orlando, a mayoral candidate who ran against Jones during the 2018 election cycle and the lone “no” vote in the 4-1 vote in 2016, told The Coast News that he had hoped the City Council would strike down the annexation agreement. For him, it comes down to a matter of infrastructure.

“San Marcos didn’t have the infrastructure to support this project when it was first approved and it still doesn’t. In fact, things are getting worse,” said Orlando. “Our schools are bursting at the seams, Los Posas Road is a bottleneck, and the 78 just keeps getting more congested.”

The annexation agreement for San Marcos Highlands now goes before the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 25 for a vote, before heading to LAFCO vote a vote on Oct. 7. Unless significant changes are made by either of those bodies, the project will not go back in front of the City Council and San Marcos Highlands will be open for business.