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A farm field in South Morro Hills. The City of Oceanside is exploring options to create more housing by increasing land use density in South Morro Hills. The Coast News file photo
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Oceanside planners mull clustered housing in South Morro Hills

OCEANSIDE — The question of how to preserve farmland in South Morro Hills while accommodating future housing and job growth remains a hot-button issue among residents who don’t want to lose the city’s unique agricultural land to development and infrastructure.

As land and farming profits continue to evaporate, rapidly increasing housing demand, labor costs and water prices are creating significant pressure to develop portions of South Morro Hills.

After several years of public outreach and surveys as part of the General Plan Update (all documented on the project website), the city held a workshop on March 16 to brainstorm strategies for agricultural preservation, clustered housing and agritourism in South Morro Hills.

Just over a week later, City Planner Russ Cunningham presented three alternative plans for future growth in the city to the Planning Commission during its March 28 meeting. According to Cunningham, the city is required to choose an alternative plan when updating its General Plan.

All three plans “assume that the bulk of the City’s future housing and employment growth will occur through infill and redevelopment within the City’s major commercial corridors” — Mission Avenue, Oceanside Blvd, Vista Way, and Coast Highway, “demonstrate capacity to accommodate the city’s fair share of regional housing growth” and “encourage environmental stewardship,” according to a staff report.

Alternative A focuses heavily on development along Mission Avenue, Oceanside Boulevard and Vista Way corridors, with some additional housing included in South Morro Hills above the neighborhood’s current 2.5 dwelling units per acre (clustered housing and additional density are permitted only if at least 75% of a development site is preserved as farmland, according to the South Morro Hills Community Plan).

Under this plan, the city would have an average residential density of 40 dwelling units per acre with fewer retail/office spaces and more industrial developments.

Alternatives B and C both include concentrated growth within the Oceanside Boulevard corridor, an average density of 52 dwelling units per acre, with more retail/office spaces and less industrial.

The key difference between alternatives B and C is what they propose for South Morro Hills. Under Alternative B, the farming community would not receive any additional housing beyond what existing zoning allows.

Alternative C could add 450 units above its current designation via higher-density clustered housing, which groups residential properties together to preserve extra land for agricultural purposes.

Staff recommended Alternative C, suggesting clustered housing could actually help to preserve farmland in South Morro Hills. But dozens of residents spoke against that option, fearing higher density projects would create potential conflicts between residential and agricultural practices.

Many were also concerned about the cost to bring necessary infrastructure like roads and sewage connections for residential development in South Morro Hills, in addition to increased traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Other major concerns included a loss of rural scenery, habitat and increased wildfire risks.

“We think it’s premature to make a decision for many reasons,” said resident Diane Nygaard. “It’s clear why we should not put housing on farmland… but how well do any of these alternatives protect remaining natural land?”

Several residents asked the Planning Commission to choose Alternative B, which would not add any additional housing to South Morro Hills.

The vast majority of the community members who spoke want to maintain the existing zoning standard of a single dwelling unit per 2.5 acres and consider other approaches to farmland preservation, which could include conservation easement acquisition to save large pieces of land from development. They also want to promote more agritourism in the area to bring more revenue from visitors to farmers.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission did not choose its preferred alternative and instead moved the decision to April 25. Going forward, the city will separate South Morro Hills planning from the overall General Plan Update, and all of the alternatives will reflect current zoning standards in the farming community.

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