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Environmental group files lawsuit to block Highlands project

SAN MARCOS — An environmental group has filed a lawsuit challenging San Marcos’ approval of the 189-unit San Marcos Highlands project.

The 40-page lawsuit, filed by the Endangered Habitats League, contends that the city’s approval of the project and its companion environmental report didn’t adequately address the environmental issue, potential fire hazards, drought concerns and other issues created by the project.

EHL, which served the city on Jan. 12, is calling for the courts to void the approvals and prepare a new environmental impact report, among other things.

“The project must be modified so that San Diego’s wildlife can continue to move across the landscape,” EHL Executive Director Dan Silver said in a prepared statement. “There is no excuse for not doing so, and we are ready and able to work with the City and applicant to achieve this goal.”

The Coast News has reached out to representatives of the property owner, Farouk Kubba, for comment and will update the story when it is received.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Nov. 15 after a four-hour public hearing in which most of the speakers railed against the project, citing environmental, traffic, open space preservation, wildlife protection and school overcrowding as flaws of the current project.

Councilman Chris Orlando cast the lone dissenting vote.

The project calls for 189 homes to be built on the 262 acre property in the city’s northern foothills and also will require that 124 acres be annexed into the city from the county by a vote of the Local Agency Formation Commission.

While the project is smaller than previous iterations — originally Kubba proposed a 275-home project on the same footprint — residents, activists and environmental groups have contended that many of the impacts remain.

Among the most prominent arguments made by the EHL in its lawsuit is that the city’s approval calls for conditions that run counter to what would be allowed under the county, especially in the matter of project density and habitat preservation.

For example, much of the project rests in an area known as the North County Multiple Species Conservation Plan, which requires, among other things, a 1,000-foot corridor for wildlife to pass through future development. According to the lawsuit, the project’s proposed wildlife corridor is 500 feet.

The lawsuit also contends that the land that would be set aside in the county portion for open space (53 percent of the acreage) is less than the 75 percent the county would require under its rules.

Additionally, the EHL contends that the project doesn’t adequately address the loss of about 77 acres of coastal sage scrub habitat, which is considered endangered and home to endangered wildlife.

Fire protection is also addressed in the lawsuit, as the EHL said the project doesn’t adequately address fire hazard mitigation due to its failure to address the high winds experienced during the 2007 fires and doesn’t require an evacuation plan for homeowners.

Also, the lawsuit argues that while there are some requirements to prevent fires, such as creating defensible spaces around homes and prohibitions on certain plants being placed within 50 feet of the home, these requirements have no enforcement mechanism.

And the lawsuit also addresses questions about the ability to provide adequate water for the project, piggybacking off of a Vallecitos Water District report that shows the district in a water deficit over the next 20 years.

Vallecitos, which would serve a portion of the project (the Vista Irrigation District would support the other), cites a 2015 report that said that the district would be in a deficit in normal, dry year or multiple dry year scenarios.

“If the district will not have adequate supplies districtwide, conclusions regarding adequacy of supplies are unsupported,” the lawsuit states.

The Highlands project has been in the works for more than 30 years since Kubba purchased the property in 1981.

Kubba originally proposed a 275-home development in 1990, but over time he has reduced the number of homes with each iteration of the project before finally settling on the 189-home version that received the Planning Commission approval in September.

It was revived in late 2014 after developers temporarily shelved the plans, and has been very controversial in the communities immediately surrounding the project, which is proposed on 262 acres northwest of Palomar College.

Consultants representing Kubba said that each variation of the project has improved it’s impact on the surrounding habitat, and that the current project calls to preserve 240 acres of open space.

But opponents said the improvements don’t go far enough.


John February 6, 2017 at 8:26 am

This is why we don’t have affordable housing in California. More than half of this property owners property has been extorted as “open space” and EHL isn’t happy? Give me a break!

John January 19, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Thank goodness there are people that stand up for our enviroment:)

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