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Solimar Research

Slow-Growth Politics Gain in Fast-Growing Temecula

Feb 1, 2001
Two years ago, heavy equipment churned up dust and closed lanes on nearly every major street in Temecula. The city was in the midst of a $60 million road improvement project undertaken to help catch up with rapid growth that has characterized the southwestern Riverside County community for years. In retrospect, the massive road project could not have come at a better time for slow-growth advocates, who in November 1999 elected two of their own to the City Council. The council now has a 3-2 pro-growth split, and both sides are gearing up for a heated municipal election this November, when all three pro-growth councilmen are up for re-election. Pamela Miod was one of the Temecula residents stuck in traffic during road construction two years ago. When it took her 30 minutes to drive seven miles across town one day, she "snapped." At the time, Miod did not know an EIR from a CUP. But after an initial inquiry to the City Council proved frustrating, Miod contacted Sam Pratt, a well-known Temecula growth fighter. Next thing she knew, Miod became manager of Pratt's City Council campaign, and president of a new group called Citizens First of Temecula Valley. The then-80-year-old Pratt won the election, becoming, he contends, the state's oldest first-time office holder. Citizens First, meanwhile, has become such a force that developers are now asking for meetings with the group. "Our organization has just grown and grown and grown through e-mails, of course," Miod said. "We've had other organizations form as a result of this." The organization was quickly hit with the "no-growth" label, but Miod said her group opposes only the break-neck pace of development that has become standard. "We don't even have the chance to get used to one hill being leveled when another hill gets leveled," Miod said. "In every corner of town, there is some kind of huge development going on, whether it be commercial or residential." Since it incorporated in December 1989, Temecula has been one of California's fastest-growing cities. In only 10 years, its population doubled to 54,000 in 2000. Although a shopping mall was built recently, large single-family housing tracts have been the primary type of development in town. That is because Temecula offers relatively affordable prices and a few rural qualities, and it is within commuting distance albeit long distance of job centers in Orange and San Diego counties. Until 1999, the Temecula City Council had unabashedly welcomed development much as the Riverside County Board of Supervisors did when it had jurisdiction over the area. "It's a different ballgame now," observed Matthew Fagan, a consultant on two major developments in Temecula and a former planner for the city. "For a young city, a lot has gone one. But I'm not sure it's different than what a lot of other cities have gone through." In fact, the political and planning cycles experienced by Temecula have been fairly predictable. After finding a welcome audience for his stance against growth, Pratt quickly proposed a moratorium on development. The moratorium went nowhere, but the City Council in March 2000 did adopt a Growth Management Action Plan. The plan talks about directing urban development to urban areas, preserving open space buffers and farmland, ensuring that infrastructure is in place ahead of development, expanding public transit, and participating in Riverside County's integrated planning process. The city has begun implementing portions of the plan, dedicating resources to the county's planning effort and sending a newsletter to improve communications with citizens. The Growth Management Action Plan also guides city review of development proposals, said Assistant City Manager Jim O'Grady. The city has no shortage of projects to review. Four major developments in various stages of the planning process would add a total of 8,000 housing units. One of those, the 2,000-home, 557-acre Wolf Creek project is due for a decision after several continuances. With the Growth Management Action Plan in place, O'Grady said, the city "reviews projects like Wolf Creek with an even stronger look at traffic and facilities to make sure facilities are in place concurrently or even before construction." Part of Temecula's plight is not of the city's making. A substantial portion of growth during the 1990s was only the build-out of projects approved years earlier by the county. In some instances the county planned well, and in others it did not and the city has had to compensate after the fact, as exemplified by its $60 million road building program, O'Grady said. Growth in unincorporated areas within Temecula's sphere of influence continues to be an issue because surrounding developments often rely on Temecula roads and because they reduce open space and agricultural land valued by city residents. In January, the Riverside County Planning Commission approved a general plan amendment, zoning change and specific plan for the 1,800-home Tucalota Hills development in French Valley, a lightly developed area several miles north of Temecula. The project approval came despite growing citizen unrest regarding "leap-frog development" and questions from the city about congestion. "I am still concerned that we haven't seen a GPA that we don't like," said county Planning Commission Chairman John Roth, who cast the lone vote against the project. The county is also considering the 1,300-home Morgan Hill subdivision, on the southern edge of the Temecula city limits. The continuing amendments to the general plan are particularly irksome to some people because the county is in the midst of an integrated planning process that seeks to combine land use, transportation and habitat planning into one blueprint for growth. (See CP&DR, February 2000.) Temecula has increased its participation in the county's process since adopting its Growth Management Action Plan. Within the city limits, four proposed housing developments would bring the town close to build-out, at least within the current city limits. Three are fairly typical single-family housing tracts, but one would provide relatively high-density homes to the city's older downtown district. Backers of "Villages at Old Town" propose 1,350 apartments, 150 condominiums and 120 duplexes on 153 acres. The new homes would surround a three-acre "town square" park, according to planning consultant Fagan. "This is a new type of project for Temecula. It's not a suburban development, it is urban in nature and feel," Fagan said. The project would provide housing variety, bring an economic stimulus to Old Town, create a critical mass to encourage public transit and provide at least part of the funding for a much-desired western bypass, Fagan said. A 1998 economic study by Keyser Marston determined that up to 2,000 housing units would compliment Old Town's existing commercial businesses, Fagan noted. However, the last significant multi-family development in town, the Temecula Ridge apartment complex, became a lightening rod during 2000. The City Council rejected the project at first but ultimately approve it after reducing the number of units by 26 to 220. Miod, of Citizens First, and others have questions about Villages at Old Town, especially the traffic it will bring. Miod said city officials have latched onto the New Urbanist concept of "village" development, but they are not executing it. People who live in Villages at Old Town would still have to drive across town to shop at Costco or take the kids to soccer practice because there are no similar facilities nearby, she said. Plus, the project would climb up a prominent hillside adjacent to Old Town, she complained. "People want to have a little bit of open space within their city limits. They don't want to have to get in their car and see what these people are trying to give us, which is a green buffer around town," Miod said. The Growth Management Action Plan does call for preserving open space and creating buffers, as well as maintaining large parcel sizes in rural areas. And city officials boast about the 21 parks that have been built since the city incorporated. Still, Councilman Pratt is not satisfied. "The Growth Management Program is essentially, in my mind, the same as our general plan, and is a political statement to get me off everybody's back," he charged. "The words are there, but the execution isn't." Pratt intends to place on the November ballot an advisory measure that calls for restricting building permits, at least until the city has a better transit system in place. Citizens have also threatened to place on the ballot some type of urban growth boundary initiative, although nothing has qualified yet. "I believe I'm making some progress, but not progress you can see. It's philosophical progress," Pratt added. The election of Pratt and Mike Naggar to the City Council in 1999 clearly helped change the tone of the growth debate in Temecula. Balloting in November could take the city to the next phase in the life of a young, fast-growing city. "We think that we have done a good job of managing growth," Assistant City Manager O'Grady said. "But growth remains a major concern in the community, as it should be." Contacts: Sam Pratt, Temecula City Council, (909) 506-5100. Jim O'Grady, Temecula city manager's office, (909) 506-5100. Pamela Miod, Citizens First of Temecula Valley, (909) 302-6744. Matthew Fagan, Matthew Fagan Consulting Services, (909) 699-2338. Temecula growth management website: http://www.cityoftemecula.org/homepage/GrowthMgmt/GrowthMgmt.htm