ESCONDIDO — At its Nov. 20 meeting, City Council voted 4-1 to authorize a $63,470 contract between Concordia Homes and the firm Michael Baker International to continue performing an environmental impact statement for Concordia’s proposed Harvest Hills project.
Formerly known as Safari Highlands, the proposed 550 homes project is slated to sit on over 1,000 acres of land in the San Pasqual Valley on county property near the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. Though a seemingly mundane vote on who should pay for an environmental impact report for a contested housing project, it morphed into a full-borne discussion on the project’s merits.
Because Harvest Hills sits on county land, the city of Escondido must vote to annex the land into the city’s land domain. But before it does so, the project — which has attracted the ire of those opposed to “sprawl” style housing — must first pass an environmental impact review.
With the 4-1 nod, Concordia Homes has now paid the firm Michael Baker International $566,355 for its environmental review services through four contractual cycles.
Liberal City Councilwoman Olga Diaz took exception with doing the review at all because she said she opposes “sprawl” housing and does not want Concordia to “waste its money” on a project she said would sit in the heart of a wildfire prone area.
“Concordia the developer is a very reputable (and) they build high-quality products. I’ve said this to the developer and applicant many times over. I don’t dislike them and I’m not going to demonize them,” Diaz said. “But this project doesn’t fit where you want to put it and I have never voted to let you spend your money knowing that you can’t solve the crucial issues that are important to me and that community.”
In a retort, conservative City Councilman Mike Morasco said he had not intended to weigh in on the merits of the project at the meeting. But he said he felt compelled to do so as a response to Diaz.
“It’s pretty basic and easy to understand that what’s before us tonight is allowing an applicant, allowing a developer, allowing a property owner to go through what legal rights they have — due process — to find out if sometime down the road they may have an opportunity to develop their property, which obviously continues to be modified. It’s called negotiations, it’s called adjustments.”
Morasco also said he took issue with the term “sprawl” itself because large swaths of the city’s housing stock, including the entire San Pasqual Union School District, is built on land some would describe by that name.
Mayor Paul McNamara, while not weighing in on the merits of the project, said he believed the project is owed a full procedural examination by the city of Escondido staff and eventually both the Planning Commission and City Council.
“I’m of the opinion that we’re voting on one thing tonight and that’s really an extension of a contract, not the merits of the project itself. That is at some point in the future” said McNamara. “I mean, I know people want this project killed, but I also think it’s not appropriate for the council to tell people whether we approve this project or not because haven’t seen the final project. And every developer has the right to spend their money how they see fit and I think they have a right to put their project forward.
In response to a question from Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez, Martin said he believes the environmental impact review will be done by spring or summer.
Once complete, the review will be open for public comment. After that, hearings and votes for Harvest Hills will take place in front of both the Planning Commission and City Council.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.