EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been revised from its original version to include more information and quotes from Arleen Hammerschmidt.
OCEANSIDE — The developers of a controversial housing project have filed a lawsuit challenging a citizen-led referendum that would potentially prevent the project from going forward.
For several years, Integral Communities has been seeking to produce a housing development called North River Farms in the South Morro Hills area of town.
The Oceanside City Council narrowly approved the development’s final plan in November 2019, which also included a General Plan update that would allow the development on 214.5 acres of land in an area of the city mostly dominated by commercial farms.
A significant amount of residents are opposed to the project, citing concerns regarding traffic congestion, fire hazards and urban sprawl. Nearly 100 individuals voiced their opposition to the project during the Council meeting when the project was approved.
Integral Communities made a number of changes to address some of those concerns. Though its original plans called for nearly 1,000 homes, the developers had taken that number down to 585 homes, with additional space for parks, retail, restaurant, and potentially a 100-room hotel.
The developer also offered to give Oceanside $1 million for preparing a community plan for South Morro Hills, an acre of land to install a permanent fire station within the project site as well as a police field office, preserving 37.5 acres of land known as the Bree Property, proposing a restaurant or brewery instead of a hotel, adding a 1-acre dog park that is open to the public, upsizing the sewer within North River Road, adding trails and providing the city $500,00 for future improvements to the Melba Bishop Recreation Center.
Additionally, developers would construct a second northbound right-turn lane on North River Road at Vandegrift, widen the College Boulevard bridge, pay the city $100,000 to fund Climate Action measures, install new traffic signals at the intersections of North River Road and Leon Street and Douglas Drive and Madra Lane, and construct a recycled water main.
Still, that wasn’t enough for many Oceanside residents. In December 2019, residents collected thousands of signatures from residents to place a referendum challenging the project on the November 2020 ballot.
Integral Communities previously filed a lawsuit in January against proponents of the referendum claiming forgery of signatures and misrepresentation of the development in the petition. In the prior lawsuit, the developer named residents Arleen Hammerschmidt and Kathryn Carbone as the proponents of the referendum.
Though a decision has yet to be made on the previous lawsuit, the referendum was approved for the November election.
In this current lawsuit, filed in July, both Carbone and Hammerschmidt are once again named along with the City of Oceanside, City Clerk Zeb Navarro, and San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu.
Hammerschmidt, and former Oceanside teacher, would not comment on the lawsuits, but did say she is “seething about the attempts to defile my family name.”
“I just hope all of my former students, athletes, their families and guardians and all of my colleagues at the (Oceanside Unified) district will continue to maintain their trust in my relationship with them,” Hammerschmidt said. “The name Hammerschmidt is known for trustworthiness, honesty, and doing the right thing from all of Southern California to the Bay Area, which is part of the reason I’m so incensed about this.”
Called “Measure L,” the ballot measure will ask voters if an ordinance that rezones approximately 176.6 acres in northeastern Oceanside to implement the North River Farms project should be adopted.
The current zoning is agricultural with a potential for allowing 2.5-acre minimum residential lots. When City Council approved the project in November, they also approved a change to the zoning to accommodate the project.
“The referendum only cherry-picks the zoning,” said Mark Dillon, an attorney representing Integral Communities in the lawsuit. “We have an approved General Plan that allows housing and an approved map that allows houses to be built, but we have an attempt by the referendum to restrict housing on the site even though the city approved it after four years of public planning and environmental review.”
The lawsuit challenging the referendum was filed under Senate Bill 330, a new state law that intends to address the state’s housing shortage and affordability crisis by boosting supply and expediting housing production.
The bill is designed to speed up housing construction for the next five years by reducing the time it takes to obtain building permits, limiting fee increases on housing applications and preventing local governments from reducing the number of homes that can be built.
The lawsuit argues that the referendum is in violation of SB 330.
“This anti-housing, anti-growth referendum seeks to undo the zoning that matches the General Plan that allows housing on the property,” Dillon said.
Each city is required to update their general plans, housing elements and zoning codes to accommodate the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) Plan, which allocated housing to jurisdictions based on the availability of transit and jobs. The plan also seeks to allocate more housing units for low and very low-income residents and prioritizes placing those units in areas with better schools, more economic opportunity and fewer environmental hazards.
The 6th Cycle RHNA Allocation determined that Oceanside needs a total of 5,443 housing units built. Of that amount, 1,268 need to accommodate very low-income households, 718 units for low income, 883 for moderate and 2,574 for above moderate.
According to Ninia Hammond, project manager for North River Farms, Oceanside is at 29% of that required amount so far.
“That leaves roughly 4,300 homes to build,” Hammond said.
Hammond said North River Farms would start selling its homes around $530,000, which is “well below the county of San Diego’s median home price but also Oceanside’s home price.”
According to Zillow.com, the average home value in Oceanside is $568,595. The county’s average value is $628,519.
Hammond noted that some of the project’s larger homes would include accessory dwelling units that could be considered accommodating to low or very low-income households. Additionally, the project has committed to building 60 affordable, subsidized housing units either with the rest of the project or even closer to public transit.
In addition to its 585 homes, trail network and 24.9-acre commercial village, the project will also include 68 acres of agriculture space, where residents can farm their own crops and will be managed by a hired professional farmer, and 17 acres of open space and parks. Hammond noted there would also be an ecology center where residents can volunteer and learn about farming.
Lance Waite, one of four principals at Integral Communities, said that courts throughout the state have had to get involved with cities resisting additional housing.
“We’re seeing difficulty in trying to produce housing because of multiple opinions weighing in on that process,” Waite said. “I think sometimes people need to step in and say, hey, there are different opinions on how housing should be built but we have to do something in California — we can’t wait any longer.”
Waite said many of those opposed to the project area homeowners who aren’t challenged by housing needs or face high housing prices.
“The people who are leading the opposition are homeowners, and that has made them generally wealthy,” Waite said. “Their housing values now far outweigh what they paid for them.”
Many of them also don’t live near the project, he added.
According to Dillon, the attorney, California is losing many of its younger residents to other states because they can’t afford to live here.
“If we keep doing this, we’re not going to have any housing that’s going to be affordable to working families,” Dillon said. “Nurses, firemen — where are these people going to live if we keep saying no and pulling up the drawbridge and not letting anybody else get that American dream?”
While Hammerschmidt would not respond to any of the comments from Integral Communities officials or the attorney, she posed a question for residents to consider.
“How do we know who to believe? Remember, what sounds too good to be true probably is,” she said. “Trust in those who earned your trust over decades.”