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A permit application at the site of the long-proposed 189-unit San Marcos Highlands Project in 2016. File photo
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San Marcos Highlands housing project gets final nod from LAFCO

REGION — Years after first being proposed in front of the city of San Marcos, the San Marcos Highlands project got the final permit it needed from the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCO) to begin construction on the 187-house, 265-acre proposal.

The project, slated to sit adjacent to the Santa Fe Hills pocket of the city, received a unanimous 6-0 vote to annex the land out of the domain of San Diego County and into the orbit of the city of San Marcos.

LAFCO members Mary Salas, the Chula Vista Mayor and San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob did not attend the meeting, nor did they have their alternates present. Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, filling in as a voting alternate, voted in the affirmative for the project as did San Diego County Supervisor and former San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond.

The project had received a 3-2 vote by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 16. In reaction to the LAFCO vote, a representative for the developer praised the legislative body.

“The property owner, and our firm, are pleased with the outcome of today’s vote by the LAFCO commissioners to unanimously support the annexation,” said Matt Simmons, vice president of field operations at the San Marcos-based firm Consultants Collaborative. “This has been a long and thoughtful process and we are glad to be moving forward with the project.”

The project’s owner is Farouk Kubba, who attended the hearing, but did not speak on behalf of it at the meeting.

Desmond, who has previously come under fire by project critics for taking a maximum allowable $800 campaign contribution from Kubba while running for supervisor in 2018, said at the hearing that he believed that San Marcos Highlands had checked all the boxes it needed to in securing LAFCO approval. And he praised the developer for securing 80% of it for open space land preservation purposes “forever.”

“Because this project is within the San Marcos sphere of influence and municipal services for this are going to be provided by the city, and because it’s been approved by all these other agencies, I’d like to move to approve the staff recommendations,” said Desmond.

San Marcos Highlands had long come under contestation due to its location next to the open space land alluded to by Desmond, land characterized with sensitive biological properties.

When first approved by the San Marcos City Council in 2016, the group Endangered Habitats League filed a lawsuit just months later under the California Environmental Quality Act, alleging that the city had failed to comply with the law by doing a glib biological impacts review. That lawsuit was settled in April.

With Endangered Habitats League satisfied with the terms of the settlement, the San Marcos City Council got the latest round of votes started by giving its nod of support of the annexation maneuver on Sept. 10.

At the LAFCO hearing, Mary Clarke — representing the environmental advocacy group, Sierra Club — knocked the proposal as a form of “sprawl” development which will convert “valuable open space to urban uses.”

Lesley Blankenship Williams, a San Marcos resident and professor of biology at Palomar College who had for years worked to oppose the proposal in her capacity as a private citizen, said she believes that San Marcos Highlands could be “devastating” to the coastal sage scrub native to the land.

“The inexcusable fragmentation of that highly valuable habitat will jeopardize the success of the Multiple Species Conservation Plan in North County,” said Williams. “And what do citizens get in exchange for the irreparable loss of this ecosystem? One hundred and eighty-seven more upscale homes in an area where insurers are cancelling hazard insurance due to the extreme fire risk.”