SAN MARCOS — As expected, the County Planning Commission has endorsed a controversial 2,135-unit development near Merriam Mountain, amid outcry from residents and businesses that say the project will destroy one of North County’s few remaining rural enclaves.
The commission voted 6-1 on June 28 to recommend the County Board of Supervisors approve the Newland Sierra project, a master-planned community consisting of 2,135 units, 81,000 square feet of commercial space, open space, parks and trails.
Supporters of the project argued that it will provide “attainable” housing to moderate-income families and working-class households and help address the county’s well-publicized housing shortfall.
Opponents, however, argued that the project did not address truly affordable housing — none of the homes cost less than $300,000 — and that the impacts to traffic, noise, fire safety and other factors render any benefits the project might have moot.
Commissioner Michael Beck, who asked questions for nearly an hour regarding the project and its impact on traffic, schools, affordable housing and other issues, cast the lone dissenting vote.
The Board of Supervisors denied Newland Sierra’s predecessor, the controversial Merriam Mountains project, in March 2010. Developers of that project, which consisted of 2,700 residential units, first applied at the county July 9, 2003, nearly 15 years ago.
Developers resubmitted the revamped project in 2015, and the county released the draft environmental impact report in mid-2017. The report, which comes in at nearly 1,800 pages, states that the project will have significant and unavoidable impacts to traffic, air quality, mineral resources, noise and increase in population.
Some of the traffic impacts — including increased congestion along several major roadways, intersections and Interstate 15 — can be mitigated, according to the report. However, several of the streets and intersections impacted are outside of the county’s jurisdiction and could only be fixed by Escondido, San Marcos or Caltrans.
Newland Communities, the developer, issued a statement shortly after the release of the report in 2017 touting the developer’s commitment to environmental stewardship.
The statement highlighted several features of the project that help make it the county’s first net-zero emissions community, including putting solar panels atop every home, a charging station for electrical vehicles in every garage, a community-sponsored shuttle with service throughout the community and the Escondido Transit Center and an electric bike-sharing program across the community.
The project also sets aside nearly 72 percent of the acreage for open space.
According to the environmental report’s summary page, the project is the first large-scale planned community in San Diego County to achieve a 100 percent reduction in the project’s construction and operational greenhouse gas emissions.
“Environmental stewardship is one of our company’s highest priorities,” said Rita Brandin, senior vice president and development director at Newland. “Now we’re taking this commitment to new heights by creating a community that will have a net-zero emissions footprint. We believe that Sierra will become the new green standard for sustainable communities in San Diego County.”
A substantial group of residents have opposed the project since its inception, and the community groups in the impacted area have all unanimously voted in favor of the project’s denial, including the Twin Oaks Valley and Hidden Meadows community sponsor groups and the Bonsall Community Planning Group.
They argued Thursday that the project would build more than 20 times the number of units than the county’s general plan — adopted in 2011 — calls for in the area.
“The density we are talking about is ridiculous,” said Tom Kumura, who lives in the Twin Oaks Valley Community and serves on the community sponsor group’s board.
Some of the more high-profile opponents of the project are the owners of the Golden Door spa, a world-renowned facility along Deer Springs Road. The owners said that the bucolic nature of the spa’s surroundings are part of the appeal, and the project would destroy that.
“It will destroy rural Twin Oaks Valley as well as our business,” said Kathy Van Ness, Golden Door’s chief operating officer.
Beck, who dominated the commissioner’s question and answer session before the vote, pointed out that despite the developer’s pledge to widen Deer Springs Road and contribute $56 million for various road and traffic improvements, large stretches of Interstate 15 and nearby streets would be operating at failing levels of service due to the traffic.
“So we’re planning for gridlock?” Beck rhetorically asked staff.
Beck also expressed disappointment that the county did not enforce the general plan’s affordable housing requirements on the developer. County staff said that it couldn’t impose the regulations because the county does not have an inclusionary housing ordinance that most jurisdictions have that require a certain percentage of a development to be set aside for affordable housing.
A developer could argue that if the county required affordable housing without an ordinance it would be a capricious requirement that could make the project financially unfeasible, county staff said.
Planning Commissioner Bryan Woods said that while there is no housing below $300,000, the project does provide about 700 units below $500,000, of which there is a dearth countywide.