SAN MARCOS — A controversial 189-home project in the foothills of San Marcos received the endorsement of the San Marcos City Council despite a sea of opposition of residents.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the San Marcos Highlands project, the penultimate step in what has been a more than 30-year process for the property owner, Farouk Kubba, who purchased the property in 1981.
Chris Orlando cast the lone dissenting vote.
The council’s decision came after a four-hour session in which nearly 30 people spoke, mostly in opposition to the project. One by one, opponents — many of whom live in the adjacent 1,600-home Santa Fe Hills Community- implored the council to reject the project, which they said fell grossly short in terms of open space preservation, wildlife protection, traffic mitigation, school population management and ridgeline protection.
“If I were to develop a project that would have the most environmental damage, it would look a lot like the Highlands project,” said Lesley Blankenship Williams, a professor at Palomar College speaking on her own behalf. “We are urging you to work with the developer to create a project that is not going to be an environmental disaster.”
Kubba originally proposed a 275-home development in 1990, but over time he has reduced the number of homes with each iteration of the project before finally settling on the 189-home version that received the Planning Commission approval in September.
It was revived in late 2014 after developers temporarily shelved the plans, and has been very controversial in the communities immediately surrounding the project, which is proposed on 262 acres northwest of Palomar College.
Consultants representing Kubba said that each variation of the project has improved it’s impact on the surrounding habitat, and that the current project calls to preserve 240 acres of open space.
But opponents responded that the project’s orientation essentially trisects one of the largest areas of coastal sage scrub habitat, and leaves corridors that are too small for wildlife to successfully make passage.
“I am a professor, and when I have a student getting a 30 in their class and then they make it to a 40, that is still an F, and an F is an F,” Blankenship Williams said. “To celebrate this improvement detracts from the fact that it still sucks and they still have a long way to go. This project isn’t anywhere close to mitigating the impacts below significance.”
Sara Kent, an environmental liaison with the Coast Law Group and program director with the affiliated Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, said the project drew parallels to the recent Lilac Hills Ranch development, which voters overwhelmingly rejected.
“That is the kin of massive sprawl that San Diego County residents are rejecting at this time,” Kent said. “A paradigm shift has occurred and we need to plan differently.”
But four of the council members sided with the developer, which they said had come a long way over the years in reshaping the project into one that, while not perfect, addresses many of its environmental concerns.
Mayor Jim Desmond said he would be hard pressed to deny a project based on some of the concerns raised by residents when many of the regulatory agencies charged with addressing those concerns had issued permits or given the go-ahead for the project.
For example, he said, San Marcos Unified has said the district has the capacity for new students, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Services have issued permits for the project.
And as for open space, he said, technically the land that opponents have called on the city to preserve is private land that has been trespassed on for years.
“This is preserving 240 acres that we don’t have right now, this is somebody else’s property,” Desmond said. “And I know you have enjoyed it, but you’ve been trespassing. I think this project is acting in a very responsible way by only permitting a small number of acres to develop and the rest is to open space, which is a huge boon for San Marcos residents.”
Rebecca Jones expressed concerns that by denying the project the council woul be ignoring the rights of a private property owner.
“To tell someone that you’ve owned this land too long, and that we are going to take your land…I totally disagree,” Jones said. “We are in a position where we want to keep residents happy but have to respect property rights.”
And Councilwoman Sharon Jenkins said that she was pleased with fail safes in place that would ensure the project wouldn’t move forward without assurances it could accommodate new students and that there was enough water to service the community.
Orlando, however, said that he didn’t think the finished product after 30 years of debate adequately addressed the community’s concerns.
“It is a process that is kind of broken, and makes a developer spend tens of thousands of dollars and create binders of studies and what comes out of it is a sub optimal solution that doesn’t address community concerns,” Orlando said. I think this project to me is caught in some pretty significant headwinds.”
At least one environmental group is weighing a legal challenge to block the council’s approval.
Kevin Johnson, an attorney representing the Endangered Habitats League, said that the group is using the 30-day window to challenge the approval to weigh whether it will sue.
Johnson said the group’s opposition lies with the placement of the project, which he said blocks critical habitat corridors, as well as the fact that several of the environmental agencies agreed that the environmental document is deficient.
“EHL is very disappointed in the outcome,” Johnson said.
Kubba originally bought the property in 1981. Nine years later, the City Council approved his development proposal for 275 homes, but that project was held up when the economy soured and when the adjacent 1,600-home Santa Fe Hills project (then called Paloma) by another developer ran into financial trouble.
In 1999, when the Highlands project was ready to move forward, it hit resistance from neighbors and wildlife agencies with complaints ranging from traffic to changing the rural character of the area to environmental impacts to the extension of Las Posas to Buena Creek.
In 2002, the council approved Kubba’s request to build 230 homes. But by 2006, with no work done, the city refused to give extensions to its approval and the project once again hit the skids.
In 2014, Kubba’s project was revived — with a bid this time to build 198 homes. More than a year later, the number of proposed homes has shrunk even further, to 189 homes, to allow for a little more open space.
The Local Agency Formation Commission will also have to weigh in on the project because it requires the annexation of about 121 acres from the county into the city limits. LAFCO oversees boundary changes such as annexations.