Staff finalizes report on strawberry fields project

Staff finalizes report on strawberry fields project
Carlsbad city staff finds the strawberry fields mall project is consistent with the framework of the city’s General Plan, Draft General Plan Update and Draft Climate Action Plan. File photo by Ellen Wright

CARLSBAD — After about three months, city staff has finished analyzing the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Initiative, which proposes an upscale retail shopping center on the site of the strawberry fields.

Caruso Affiliated has proposed to build an upscale shopping center anchored by a Nordstrom along Cannon Road.

The mall will be located on about 27 acres near the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. As part of the plan, about 177 acres will be permanently set aside as open space.

Staff found the project is consistent with the framework of the city’s General Plan, Draft General Plan Update and Draft Climate Action Plan.

According to the staff report, the project will also improve the traffic at eight intersections in the area, compared to having no upgrades or changes.

The plan aims to alleviate traffic congestion at seven intersections including El Camino Real, Palomar Airport Road, Paseo del Norte and Cannon Road.

While the majority of the report gave the project good marks, staff found a flaw in the economic figures.

Staff estimated Rick Caruso’s initiative overstated the economic impacts although the project would have a positive impact with increased property taxes, business license fees and sales tax resulting in annual revenue of $2.575 million to the city.

Because the project was introduced through a citizen led initiative, it is not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, which has been a point of contention among some environmental groups like the Surfrider Foundation.

“Large developments like this, within the protected coastal zone, should require extra care in evaluating their potential impacts to our coastal resources,” Surfrider Foundation Policy Manager Julia Chunn-Heer said in a written statement. “Instead of extra care, this developer is proposing to circumvent CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), which is of great concern.”

City staff said the environmental impacts aren’t “excessive or extraordinary as compared to many similar development projects that have been approved and constructed within the city.”

The project is subject to review from the California Coastal Commission and staff wrote that some of the potential impacts require further clarification, which could be accomplished during the review by the commission.

The commission has the authority to change the plan so it’s in accordance with the Coastal Act.

The Agua Hedionda 85/15 Initiative was introduced by three citizens, realtor Carlton Lund, Agua Hedionda Foundation Chairperson Maureen Simons and former Planning Commissioner Bill Dominquez.

Caruso, a Los Angeles-based developer whose company built The Americana and The Grove shopping centers, sponsored the plan.

He was required to get 9,784 signatures from registered Carlsbad voters to bring the initiative to city council. He far exceeded the requirement with 20,000 signatures.

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters is currently verifying the validity of the signatures and has until Aug. 18 to do so.

The City Clerk will then have 10 days to verify the results and it will go in front of council, which will have the option to outright approve the project or put it on the ballot for a special election.

Some environmental groups have asked council to put it on a ballot.

“What the 9212 report really does is demonstrate numerous issues with this project — issues that require the kind of thorough review that can only come by putting this on the ballot and letting the people vote,” said Diane Nygaard, president of Preserve Calavera.

The project proposal includes trails, park benches and an outdoor amphitheater near the lagoon to make it accessible to the public, which it currently is not.

According to city law, nearly 50 acres of the parcel could be developed into retail space.

At Mayor Matt Hall’s swearing in ceremony in December, he listed the strawberry field’s mall as one of the three goals he hopes to accomplish during his term in office.

Update: This post said developer Rick Caruso would pay for the special election in its entirety. That has not been confirmed.

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