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New plans for the Merriam Mountain development project draw mixed reviews. Courtesy rendering
New plans for the Merriam Mountain development project draw mixed reviews. Courtesy rendering
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Merriam Mountain plans receiving mixed reviews

SAN MARCOS — The developers behind the second iteration of a controversial North County development unveiled its plans to local residents this month — to mixed reviews.

The San Diego-based Newland Corporation, the master-planned community developer behind 4-S Ranch, is proposing a 2,135-unit project on 1,983 acres in the Merriam Mountain area north of San Marcos.

The County Board of Supervisors, by a 3-2 vote in March 2010, rejected the previous plan, proposed by Orange County-based Stonegate Development Group, for a 2,600-unit subdivision, citing traffic, fire and density concerns.

Officials with Newland said they hope to avoid some of the missteps that led to the previous proposal’s demise.

“I believe that Newland’s approach to planning is distinctly different than the prior developer,” said Rita Brandin, Newland’s senior vice president and development director.

The current proposal calls for 64 percent of the homes to be single-family units, with the rest being townhomes, and an 81,000-square-foot neighborhood-shopping plaza that will include a grocery store that would serve both the new community and neighboring areas such as Hidden Meadows and Twin Oaks.

A combined 200 people attended the developer’s outreach meetings July 22 and July 23, at which time it provided the public of information about the proposed development and gave a preliminary timeline of its next steps.

Newland anticipates submitting its specific plan amendment application in January 2015, and if everything went according to plan, the first residents could move in as early as 2021.

Several people who attended the meeting that were opposed to the Stonegate plan said they see some positive changes in Newland’s proposal — including the outreach itself – but still see some critical issues with the current iteration.

Tim Geiser is chairman of the Deer Springs Fire Protection District, which services the currently undeveloped land where the project is proposed. Geiser, who said he attended the meeting not representing the fire district, said he sees the major flaw of the project, much like the first one, is there is effectively one access point to the entire community – Twin Oaks Valley Road, which becomes Deer Springs Road on the eastern edge of the project.

The two-lane road experiences serious congestion during rush hour as commuters use it as a pass through to avoid traffic on state Route 78 and Interstate 15. Adding as many as 10,000 new residents, Geiser said, could be disastrous.

“That is the choke point in the whole thing,” Geiser said. “If we get a big wind-driven fire, and this area hasn’t burned in 100 years so there is a lot of brush there, how do you get all of these people out in a hurry?

“The bottom line is that they haven’t figured out how to get those people out of there,” Geiser said.

Sandra Farrell, chairwoman of the Twin Oaks Community Sponsor Group, echoed Geiser’s concerns about the roads, but also expressed concerns about the project’s density, which would require an amendment to the county’s General Plan in order to proceed.

“If we spent all this money on a general plan and we keep allowing developers to file specific plan amendments, we are going to be back in the same problem we have always been in,” Farrell said. “We won’t be able to mitigate the impacts, so why spend all of the millions of dollars to update the general plan in the first place.”

Brandin acknowledged the traffic and access concerns and said it is something they are working on trying to find a solution. One thing they have done, she said, was make the access point for the entire development would be at the Deer Springs- Mesa Rock Road intersection, as close to the 15 freeway as possible.

“This was done so that the access would be right by the freeway,” Brandin said.

Brandin said Newland has also tried to address some of the density concerns by consolidating development on only about 380 of the total project acreage. She said 1,200 of the acreage will be public open space and the rest will be for a large firebreak.

The open space would be roughly the size of Balboa Park, she said.

One concern that Brandin said she doesn’t necessarily agree with is that of the general plan changes. She said the specific-plan process was created for specifically this purpose — to allow developers latitude with property and fill an important housing need for the county’s future growth.

“I think the underlying very important thing to think about is when you look at the projected growth in this county, there could be an additional million people by 2050 and it is believed that 330,000 homes will be needed,” Brandin said. “We believe it is a value to go through the process of a Specific Plan amendment because we can meet a portion of the county’s longer-term needs.”