OCEANSIDE — On Nov. 6, City Council approved the controversial North River Farms project, a 585-home development within South Morro Hills.
North River Farms was initially proposed in 2016 when an application was filed seeking to amend the city’s current land use and zoning designations for a development on 176.6 acres of property with between 680 and 985 residential units.
Now, the proposed number of units is 585 on 214.5 acres with additional space used for parks, retail, restaurant and potentially a 100-room hotel.
The Planning Commission recommended denial of the project twice within the past year despite several modifications being made in that time.
The project was set for a public hearing in City Council on May 22, but developers Integral Communities, requested to postpone the hearing to allow for more revisions to the project. Those revisions include:
- Reducing the unit count from 656 to 585.
- Giving Oceanside $1 million for preparing a community plan for the long-range efforts for South Morro Hills.
- Giving the city one acre of land for developing a permanent fire station within the project site as well as space for a police field office. This commitment would include purchasing an appropriate fire apparatus and contribute funding for two city personnel.
- Preserving 37.5 acres of land known as the Bree Property.
- Proposing a restaurant or brewery as an alternative to a boutique hotel.
- Adding a 1-acre dog park open to the public.
- Upsizing the sewer within North River Road between Leon Drive and the western boundary of the development.
- Adding mountain bike trail.
- Providing $500,000 to the city for future improvements to the Melba Bishop Recreation Center.
The project’s developers have also offered to construct a second northbound right turn lane on North River Road at Vandegrift, to widen the College Boulevard bridge, to pay the city $100,000 to fund Climate Action Plan measures, to install new traffic signals at the intersections of North River Road and Leon Street and Douglas Drive and Madra Lane, to construct a recycled water main and to develop a trail network.
City Council approved the project in a 3-2 vote with council members Esther Sanchez and Ryan Keim opposed.
Keim was worried that some of the costs for public safety and infrastructure improvements would fall back onto the city.
“I think this project is premature,” Keim said.
Sanchez said even with all the refinements, the project is “no different than before” due to its expected impact on state Route 76 traffic. She also noted that with all the additions to the development, the cost to live there would be more expensive as the amenities’ costs will fall back onto the buyers’ shoulders.
“This is urban sprawl in its worst,” Sanchez said. “It is not smart growth, which is required by SANDAG, it is not a transit-oriented development, it does not assist us in any way whatsoever to achieve and satisfy our Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) requirements because what we need in order to be able to do that is affordable housing.”
There were 97 speakers for the public hearing item at the Nov. 6 Council meeting. According to Sanchez, she determined there was a 2-to-1 ratio of people who oppose the project to those who support it.
Councilman Chris Rodriguez said he was against the development in its original form but supports what it has become.
“The project before you today is not the same project that city staff denied,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez emphasized how important the public safety and infrastructure improvements proposed by North River Farms is for District 2, the district Rodriguez represents on City Council and where North River Farms will be located.
“The public safety and infrastructure enhancements mean the difference between life and death for my district,” Rodriguez said. “We desperately need a second fire station in District 2. Call times are just under 10 minutes, double what they should be.”
But many opponents fear that the development will worsen evacuation routes for fires. Several speakers cited the Lilac fire a few years ago and the problems with evacuation routes back then.
“This project sits in an extreme fire risk area,” said Ruben Major, a paramedic, disaster management trainer and 2020 candidate for Oceanside mayor.
Major said during the Lilac fire, he and his son were driving back from helping residents at the Fallbrook evacuation center when they saw heavy flames near where the development would be located.
“The potential for people to die is too great for this project to be approved,” Major said.
Fire Chief Rick Robinson noted developers have the ability to build nearly “ignition resistant” homes and believes North River Farms will be a community that does this, unlike the houses built in Paradise and other communities that suffered tremendously from California wildfires last year.
Robinson also said first responders in San Diego County have reworked evacuation routes throughout the county, including in places like where the Lilac fire occurred.
“Fire danger in California, particularly San Diego is of real concern,” Integral Communities told The Coast News in a statement. “We took heed and incorporated many safety enhancements into our design to benefit our future residents and existing neighbors, such as improving every road that leads to us for a safer and easier evacuation route, and funding a new fire station along with the equipment and personnel to staff it, even gaining the Oceanside Firefighter Association’s support of the project.”
Opponents also argued the importance of preserving the city’s agricultural land for farmers in the South Morro Hills area.
“We are proud of the changes that have resulted in over 40% of the overall acreage being preserved in agriculture and open space,” according to Integral Communities. “This captures a sustainable vision to preserve farmland long into the future and reimagines this community by making it accessible to the public.”
Deputy Mayor Jack Feller pointed out that Oceanside was once all farmland and that some farmers simply aren’t interested in farming anymore.
Feller also suggested that North River Farms would be a place for his family to live.
“I have a huge family still in Oceanside and they want to stay here, and I want to be able to help them stay here,” Feller said.
Mayor Peter Weiss pointed out that many of those who have problems regarding potential traffic issues to come from North River Farms were also against projects like the Melrose extension and other proposed traffic improvement projects in the city.
“You can’t support eliminating traffic projects that help alleviate traffic and then complain because it’s congested,” Weiss said.
Weiss also made a motion directing staff to prepare an ordinance for council consideration that would prohibit further development in South Morro Hills beyond what is permitted in the existing General Plan until a community plan is prepared. The ordinance also dictates that the community plan must be presented to council during a workshop within 12 months.
“We are very anxious to get the development process started,” Integral Communities stated. “As such, we have submitted our grading plans to the City of Oceanside for review.”
Editors Note: This story has been updated from an original version to include statements from Integral Communities.
Samantha Taylor covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son