The owners of a 22,000-acre ranch in San Diego County are making preliminary moves to develop their property, located several miles east of Escondido. However, environmentalists, public land advocates and even a pro-growth county supervisor are already lining up in opposition.
The property is Rancho Guejito, which is both one of the last intact Spanish land grants remaining in California and the largest parcel of undeveloped, privately owned land in San Diego County. Environmentalists have long wanted to protect the property, which is mostly untouched except for cattle grazing on portions of the site.
"It's one of the most important conservation properties in California," said Dan Silver, president of the Endangered Habitats League.
The administration of Gov. Ronald Reagan took steps toward acquiring Rancho Guejito for a state park, but Jerry Brown killed the plan when he came to the governor's office in 1975. As a result, Benjamin Coates, a Philadelphia oil and shipping magnate, acquired the property, which he maintained as his private ranch. Coates died in 2004, but his widow, Nancy Coates, assured the public that there were no plans to develop the property. However, it appears that two other people, including daughter Theodate Coates, are the trustees in control of the property — and they have enlisted a phalanx of attorneys, planners, engineers and lobbyists. Last year, they acquired 100 acres to link the ranch with Highway 78.
Early this year, the property owners asked the City of Escondido to consider annexing Rancho Guejito for development of "a university medical school research campus," housing, commercial centers and other things. City officials have made no commitment but are intrigued by the prospects of roughly doubling the city's territory.
"It is being looked at, but it's not being processed as a development project or as a specific development request at this point," said Jonathan Brindle, Escondido's community development director.
City planners and administrators are putting together a two-year action plan of major planning projects, including a general plan update, for the City Council to consider. One possibility is to include the Rancho Guejito annexation as part of a general plan revision, Brindle explained.
Rancho Guejito is not in the city's current sphere of influence, nor is it mentioned in the city's existing general plan. Proposals are "very, very sketchy at this point," said Michael Ott, executive officer of the San Diego County Local Agency Formation Commission. "This would necessitate a major sphere update for the city, and a municipal services review," he said. LAFCO would require detailed development plans and an environmental impact report before it could even begin considering annexation, he said.
One consideration is that Rancho Guejito lies several miles outside of Escondido, and a number of properties, including the San Diego Wild Animal Park, lie in between. The North County Times reported in March that representatives of the property owners had communicated with San Diego County officials about possible development for years. However, county officials showed no interest, and an update of the county's general plan proposes designating the property for parcels of at least 160 acres. So the property owners (whose representatives did not respond to CP&DR requests for interview) turned their attention to the City of Escondido.
Thus far, the property owners are without public allies. San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district includes Rancho Guejito but not Escondido, has emerged as a leading opponent of development on the site. In a recent op-ed piece in local newspapers, Horn called the property a "treasure." "The people of our region have trusted the Coates family for 30 years and now feel betrayed," wrote Horn, a conservative who usually advocates for property rights. In this instance, though, Horn advocates using state bond money and other public funds to acquire the property.
Silver, of the Endangered Habitats League, said the annexation proposal "isn't grounded in reality" and would be "dead on arrival" at LAFCO.
"What these trustees don't understand is that development on this site would face massive obstacles," Silver said. "There's no water for the project, no services, no infrastructure."
Both Silver and Rick Halsey, a board member on the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, said development of Rancho Guejito would forever change the nature of the region.
"You've got to consider all the costs — the ecological cost of removing the last viable piece of old California that is like before we got here," said Halsey, who runs the California Chaparral Field Institute. "What's the price of losing that? It's a value judgment."
The conservancy on which Halsey serves has recommended that the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority add the ranch to its planning area as one step toward protecting the site. The JPA's planning area covers about 80,000 acres stretching from Del Mar to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. About 75% is in public ownership, and the agency continues to acquire parcels from willing sellers. Rancho Guejito property owners have urged the JPA not to place the ranch in its planning area; a decision is scheduled this month.
A report by the Conservation Biology Institute of Corvallis, Oregon, helps explain the opposition to development. According to the institute, Rancho Guejito provided a "geographical and cultural bridge between the coast and mountain settlement patterns of Indians." Numerous Native American cultural sites remain intact, as do the remains of Spanish ranching operations. The ranch is also an ecological gateway between coastal habitats and the high elevations of Cleveland National Forest, according to the institute. The ranch has one of the largest remaining stands of rare Englemann oaks in Southern California, and is home to a large population of endangered Stephens' kangaroo rats.
Planners working on the North County multiple species conservation plan initially excluded Rancho Guejito from the plan area because they assumed the property would remain undeveloped. They are now re-evaluating the plan's boundaries.
One possibility is that the landowners intend to sell to a public entity but are going through the motions of development in order to drive up the price. The property owners' representatives have denied this is their strategy.
Jonathan Brindle, City of Escondido Community Development Department, (760) 839-4553.
Michael Ott, San Diego County Local Agency Formation Commission, (619) 531-5400.
Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (213) 804-2750.