A housing development proposed for North San Diego County may give county decision-makers the opportunity to apply some of the “smart growth” principles contained in a proposed general plan update before the plan is even adopted.

A landowner has proposed a 2,700-unit housing development in a fashion that concentrates the housing on less than 20% of the 2,320-acre site along Interstate 15. About 1,300 acres of the Merriam Mountains project would be dedicated as open space for a habitat conservation effort.

The county’s proposed general plan, which has been in the works for eight years, designates a number of georgraphic nodes for fairly dense growth while making large areas essentially off-limits to any significant development. The Merriam Mountains project site is not one of the growth nodes in the proposed version of the general plan, which designates the area for 40-acre parcels. However, a general plan alternative put forth by county supervisors does call for development on the site.

An additional complicating factor is local reception. Two county advisory groups (known as community sponsor groups) that represent the area have made clear that they oppose the project.

“A lot of us moved here because of the way it was, not because of how developers want to make it,” said Charles Davis, vice chairman of the Bonsall Community Sponsor Group.

A decision on the Merriam Mountains project could come next year; the landowner already is six years into the planning process.

Although it is mostly rural, North San Diego County along I-15 definitely is within the path of growth. The area lies just north of the rapidly growing cities of San Marcos and Escondido, and just south of the exploding suburbs in western Riverside County. Interstate 15 frequently is jammed with people commuting to and from jobs closer to San Diego. Officials in San Diego and Riverside counties have formed a joint policy committee to address growth and transportation issues along the I-15 corridor.

Stonegate Development — a privately held entitlement company based in Orange County — has acquired nearly 60 parcels comprising 2,320 acres in a 2 1/2-mile stretch along the west side of I-15, between the communities of Twin Oaks Valley and Bonsall. The site’s proximity to the freeway makes it ideal for development, said Joseph Perring, project manager for Stonegate.

“We have been working on this project since the year 2000. The plan has always been to create a state-of-the-art, conservation-oriented master planned community,” Perring said.

That plan has evolved over time. Originally, Stonegate proposed about 2,400 units, primarily single-family houses and condominiums, spread across the majority of the site. County planners and wildlife agencies gave that concept a thumbs down. Stonegate responded by adding some acreage and clustering the proposed development into five neighborhoods totaling approximately 420 acres. Stonegate would contribute at least 1,300 acres for the north county multiple species habitat conservation plan (MSHCP). Other open space would be provided as parkland or integrated into the development as open space. There also would be a 10-acre commercial site.

The plan calls for nearly 1,000 single-family houses, primarily on lots of 4,000 to 7,000 square feet, about 1,400 condominiums in various forms, and 270 affordable apartment units. Stonegate has applied for a general plan amendment, rezoning and vesting tentative tract maps.

A portion of the site is now zoned light industrial and commercial, but that type of development is not feasible, Perring contended. He said that, although the area is considered rural, the Merriam Mountains planned community is not out of character. The Hidden Meadows planned development lies across the freeway, and the Lawrence Welk resort with hundreds of mobile homes plus timeshares and condominiums is nearby.

“We’re right in the middle of some existing developments that, in their day, were very similar to what we are planning,” Perring said.

But Davis, of the Bonsall advisory group, said Stonegate’s property should either remain undeveloped open space, or should be developed only with estate homes on very large lots. Davis condemned Stonegate’s plan revisions that cluster development and add units.

“It’s Orange County-style development that most of us don’t like in North County,” Davis said. “You don’t improve something by increasing the density.” Members of the Twin Oaks Valley Sponsor Group have expressed similar sentiments.

Earlier this year, Twin Oaks Valley Equestrian Association President Carol Shuttleworth told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the project would “destroy everything that we’re about.”

Perring said Stonegate has reached out to locals, but he conceded there is no common ground.

“The local planning group will never support a project like this. Their idea for our property in the general plan update was one unit per 40 acres,” Perring said. The company did consider an estate-lot approach — and nearly 60 parcels already exist — but very low-density development could not support the needed infrastructure, he said. Additionally, environmentalists and regulatory agencies generally oppose large-lot projects, Perring noted.

Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, confirmed the latter point. Local residents may say they favor large-lot housing, but such development consumes valuable habitat and is unsustainable in the long-run, Silver said.

Silver called the Merriam Mountains project “complicated” because it would provide a large chunk of habitat reserve, yet it conflicts with the proposed general plan update that the group likes. Endangered Habitats League neither supports nor opposes the housing project.

“It’s a very large, intact block of chaparral,” Silver said of the site. “There are very few of these large blocks left in the North County at all, especially west of Interstate 15. It’s at least reassuring to us that there is a viable MSHCP piece if the project is approved.”

Currently, Stonegate representatives are answering county planners’ questions about the project’s environmental impact report. A draft EIR is expected to be released this fall. The project would then move to the Planning Commission for hearings that are sure to be contentious.

Joe Perring, Stonegate Development, (949) 367-9400.
Charles Davis, Bonsall Community Sponsor Group, (760) 726-7472.
Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (213) 804-2750.