Like most cities in western Riverside County, Lake Elsinore is very receptive to growth. The city’s population has nearly quadrupled in 20 years to about 35,000, with many of the newcomers drawn by inexpensive homes.

However, development of a largely empty part of town — 3,000 acres known as the “back basin” — has been the subject of failed plans, litigation and sensitive politics for 15 years. The latest developer to take a run at a major project in the back basin is John Laing Homes, which is proposing 1,847 housing units (mostly single-family houses) and various amenities on 707 acres. The Planning Commission endorsed the project in April, but the City Council has slowed the process. The council scheduled a study session on the Laing project and back basin development for this month — and it appears that a majority of the council has reservations.

“We’ve got density issues. We have compatibility issues,” said Lake Elsinore Mayor Thomas Buckley. “Around where the houses are proposed are a baseball stadium, a motocross track, an airport and a lake.”

On top of everything else, the property is in a floodplain and lies atop the Whittier-Elsinore fault.

“It has been a politically sensitive area for a very long time,” Buckley said. “You do not get a lot of residents’ support for building in that area.”

In 1993, the city adopted the East Lake specific plan for the 3,000-acre back basin area, which lies roughly between the lake and Interstate 15. The plan envisioned about 9,000 housing units, 400 acres of commercial development, a minor league baseball stadium, about 580 acres wetlands and habitat, plus parks, public open space and a golf course. The specific plan was an outgrowth of a master plan that was required by the Army Corps of Engineers, explained Duane Morita, Lake Elsinore senior planner. The Corps required the plan as part of a late-1980s levy project that was intended to reduce the threat of flooding.

Since the plan’s adoption, about the only things that have been built are the city-owned Diamond Stadium, home to the Lake Elsinore Storm baseball team, and some office buildings.

The first developer, a group called Liberty Founders, a subsidiary of TMC Communities, never got a project off the ground. Eventually, Liberty sued the city over allegedly misleading infrastructure finance information, and the city countersued a Liberty offshoot that bailed out of a stadium management contract. A new developer, Civic Partners, apparently became a partner with TMC, taking over the project and gaining standing in the litigation. The lawsuits were settled in late 2002, in part when the city’s redevelopment agency agreed to provide Civic Partners some of the property tax increment resulting from future development. But Civic Partners never built anything. Now, Orange County-based heavyweight John Laing Homes has an agreement with Civic Partners, under which Laing is pursuing a project on the 707-acre, phase one portion of the East Lake specific plan area.

In response to developers’ applications for phase one, the city twice amended the specific plan. Laing proposes another amendment, this one eliminating all commercial development. The amendment would designate 313 acres for single-family homes and 12 acres for multi-family housing. Laing also proposes an elementary school, a golf course, a 24-acre multi-use park, and extensive open space, including a buffer between homes and sensitive riparian habitat. Under an amended development agreement, the project would be vested for 20 years.

Michael Filler, a Laing vice president overseeing the project, declined to discuss the proposal before the City Council decides. “It’s a unique situation because of the sensitive politics involved,” Filler said. He expressed frustration with the council’s decision to schedule a study session, but he called it “just a bump in the road.”

That characterization could prove true. Entitlements for the property already exist, as do a development agreement and a redevelopment agency disposition and development agreement. The Laing proposal would only modify the entitlements and development agreement.

Still, the City Council wants to discuss a number of concerns. One of those is lot size. Laing proposes lots ranging from 3,680 square feet to 11,526 square feet, with an average of about 5,300 square feet. Mayor Buckley dislikes the concentration of the smallest lots (about one-third of the development) and plans for zero-lot-line construction.

The mayor and other council members also worry about land use conflicts. The Laing project would require closure of the motocross track, a nationally known facility that draws 1,000 or more participants and spectators on a regular basis. And not far away is the airport, which is popular among skydivers.

Buckley suggests using portions of the back basin with the best lake views for large-lot housing development, tucking in a retirement community somewhere, and encourage other development that takes advantage of the lake and other existing assets.

“There’s a way to make it so that it all fits, so that you do have all kinds of housing and you make sure that the recreation and tourism facilities are not only protected, but enhanced,” Buckley said. He insisted that the city has a big say because no significant development could occur if not for the publicly funded levy.

Other people are not sure that any development is appropriate. Because development must be built on fill to raise buildings above the flood line, soil liquefaction is a concern should a major quake hit. Jeanie Corral, a historian and trustee for the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, called proposed development of the back basin “foolhardy.” The lake — Southern California’s largest natural lake — has flooded numerous times. During the winter of 1979-80, the lake level rose 17 feet, inundating numerous homes and completely covering the back basin, Corral said. The vast majority of current residents were not around for that disaster, she noted.

Corral has made clear she will block construction of a school in the Laing project. “I don’t believe that it would be prudent for a school to be there,” she said. “A known floodplain is never safe. It may be dormant for a while, but it’s never completely safe.”

City planners and development backers, however, contend that construction of the levy eliminated the threat of flooding. They also say that studies have found that liquefaction is not a concern.

The City Council is not the last stop for the Laing project. The development also needs an amended wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, a streambed alteration agreement from the state Department of Fish and Game, and clearance under the county’s multi-species habitat conservation program.

Duane Morita, Lake Elsinore community development department, (909) 674-3124, ext. 279.
Mayor Thomas Buckley, (909) 245-8318.
Jeanie Corral, Lake Elsinore Unified School District, (909) 674-4228.
Michael Filler, John Laing Homes, (909) 245-9075.