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Lance Schulte
Lance Schulte of the group People for Ponto, displays a whale sculpture that would be gifted to the city if it moves on constructing Ponto Park. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Legal, cost issues are barriers to potential Ponto Park

CARLSBAD — The battle for Ponto Park added another wrinkle after the Carlsbad City Council discussed the item for more than two hours during its July 13 meeting, ultimately deciding to bring the issue back for strategic planning at its July 20 meeting.

For years residents at Ponto have been lobbying the city for an 11-acre park off Ponto Drive and Avenida Encinas just east of Coast Highway.

However, city staff reported the likelihood of the city buying the land is slim, especially since the property owner, Hudson Advisors, is unwilling to sell, according to City Manager Scott Chadwick.

Also, the cost to buy the land, build the park and rearrange other requirements puts the estimated cost between $50 million and $100 million, Mayor Matt Hall said.

The City Council will discuss the item as part of its strategic vision for the area, which also includes a potential linear park, which has been discussed for decades.

“It was around 2004 to 2007 and looked at the whole Ponto area to be planned,” Hall said during a long historical review of the property. “Out of that … the parks became a question in that area. In 2006-07, we started talking about a linear park and even began talking with the state. Really, what this boils down to is the (commercial) development of that land (rather) than parks.”

Jeff Murphy, community development director, said Hudson Advisors also has an active development application, meaning they have a “legal right” to see the project through.

The current proposed development is for 136 residential units (28 affordable) on the 11-acres site, with commercial spaces on the smaller six-acre parcel west of Ponto Drive.

Murphy said Senate Bill 330 ties City Council’s hands to rules and regulations to time of submission, which was April of this year. Additionally, a public project using more than $1 million in General Fund money requires a citywide vote under Proposition H.

Another point of discussion between proponents — led by the People for Ponto group — and city staff is the 2017 Sea-level Vulnerability Report. Murphy said the report doesn’t address the scope of the impacts, just that the area is vulnerable to flooding and erosion.

“The fact we have an unwilling seller and defending their legal rights and possibly putting the city in jeopardy is something we need to consider,” said Councilwoman Teresa Acosta. “If this is a priority for the community, we need to make it a priority.”

As for the property, the current assessed value is $15 million, although Hudson Advisors relayed to the council in February, they’ve had offers of up to $40 million. The city would have to purchase the land at a fair market rate.

Also, Hudson Advisors sent a letter to the city, which Chadwick read in part, noting the developer will not sell and the city can’t legally use eminent domain to secure the property. Earlier this year, an attorney for Hudson Advisors sent a letter acknowledging if the council were to jeopardize the value of the land, the city would be sued.

Jodi Jones and Lance Schulte, two of the leads for People for Ponto, said they’ve spent years on this issue and are seeking a collaborative working relationship with the city. They don’t believe a linear park, which would be about 22 acres from Palomar Airport Road to La Costa Avenue, is in the best interests of the city.

Schulte, a former Carlsbad city planner, along with numerous other speakers, pushed back against the staff report and some of its findings.

Some of their points include there is no coastal park in the southwest quadrant of the city, Veterans Park allocation doesn’t serve their area and the city could save millions by engaging in public-private partnerships to buy and construct the park.

The group also lobbied for the city to rezone the land, along with Ponto Park being a cheaper alternative than the linear park. Murphy said now the application has been filed, the city cannot retroactively downzone the land.

“Something that takes 30 years to get here is not a high priority,” Jones said of the linear park. “We have engaged the community for Ponto Park. We keep coming up here and we’re not being heard.”

The linear park, or realignment plan, includes moving Coast Highway east and opening up 22 acres along the coastline.