REGION — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a controversial development near Merriam Mountain after a marathon hearing on Sept. 26.
With Supervisor Dianne Jacob absent, the board voted 4-0 in favor of the Newland Sierra project, a 2,135-unit development just north of San Marcos and west of Hidden Meadows and Escondido.
The project has a number of supporters, but received heavy opposition from local planning groups, a world-renowned spa facility and a Buddhist center, as well as wildlife agencies that expressed concerns about the project’s impact on a county habitat plan.
Supporters and opponents delivered more than four hours’ worth of testimony on all aspects of the project before the board rendered its relatively quick verdict.
“I think this is a good project,” said Supervisor Bill Horn, whose District 5 is home to the project. “I think it’s well-designed, well-planned and I am pleased with mix of housing types.”
The Board of Supervisors denied Newland Sierra’s predecessor, the controversial Merriam Mountains project, in March 2010. Developers of that project, which consisted of 2,700 residential units, first applied at the county July 9, 2003, nearly 15 years ago.
Developers resubmitted the revamped project in 2015, and the county released the draft environmental impact report in mid-2017. The report, which comes in at nearly 1,800 pages, states that the project will have significant and unavoidable impacts to traffic, air quality, mineral resources, noise and increase in population.
Some of the traffic impacts — including increased congestion along several major roadways, intersections and Interstate 15 — can be mitigated, according to the report. However, several of the streets and intersections impacted are outside of the county’s jurisdiction and could only be fixed by Escondido, San Marcos or Caltrans.
Newland Communities, the developer, issued a statement shortly after the release of the report in 2017 touting the developer’s commitment to environmental stewardship.
The statement highlighted several features of the project that help make it the county’s first net-zero emissions community, including putting solar panels atop every home, a charging station for electrical vehicles in every garage, a community-sponsored shuttle with service throughout the community and the Escondido Transit Center and an electric bike-sharing program across the community.
The project also sets aside nearly 72 percent of the acreage for open space.
According to the environmental report’s summary page, the project is the first large-scale planned community in San Diego County to achieve a 100 percent reduction in the project’s construction and operational greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporters — 47 individuals and four groups who spoke at the Wednesday hearing — said the project was critical to helping the county begin to alleviate its well-documented shortage of housing, especially for middle-income earners.
One by one, they spoke about how many friends, family and children had been forced to leave San Diego because they couldn’t find a house within their budget.
“This is a project that the county can’t afford to pass up on,” Escondido resident Mark Baker said.
Kirk Effinger, an Escondido resident and supporter of the project, dismissed opponents’ concerns about fouling the rural nature of the area.
“Don’t believe opponents of the development that said that this is about preserving the back country,” he said. “This is about a (expensive) day spa and wealthy back country owners looking to protect their investment.”
Supporters also pointed to the widening of Deer Springs Road and other infrastructure improvements — $56 million worth, according to the staff report — as reasons to approve it.
Project opponents, however, pointed to the project’s incompatibility with the county’s general plan, which calls for 99 homes and retail in the area. They said that if the county allowed the development to go through, then the years of development behind the general plan, which was updated in 2011, were for naught.
“This is the same project as the Merriam Mountains project,” said Cliff Williams, an attorney representing Golden Day spa and 23 property owners near the project. “The board wisely rejected it then on the basis of bad planning. It was the wrong choice then, it’s the wrong choice now.”
Stephanie Sozui Schubert, the assistant meditation director of the Hidden Valley Zen Center, said that the project violates the law because it would hinder the center’s visitors from practicing their religion due to the construction noise and added traffic.
Others pointed to the increased traffic, potential fire hazard and the impacts to the character of the area as reasons to oppose the project.
“There are far too many reasons to deny the project, and I could think of no reason to build it, except for profit,” said Carl Wayne Dauber of the Hidden Meadows Community Sponsor Group, which has opposed the project since its inception. “This project is an existential threat to our way of life. Sound extreme? Well, it’s not. For us it’s a potential death sentence.”
As part of the approval, the developer can’t start grading until after Dec. 21, 2018, due to a current lawsuit against the county’s climate action plan.
However, the project itself likely will be headed to court, as opponents have already said they would sue to stop it from going forward.