The county’s Planning Commission is expected to make a recommendation on the proposed Stonegate Merriam Mountains development at tomorrow’s meeting.
The Planning Commission heard public testimony at an all-day meeting October 9 before voting 7-0 to close public testimony and continue the hearing until October 23. The continuance allowed commissioners to make site visits.
“I think our job here is to do what’s right for good planning,” said Commissioner Adam Day.
The Merriam Mountains development as currently proposed includes 2,700 residential units of various housing types in six different neighborhoods.
Five of those neighborhoods would be northwest of Interstate 15 and Deer Springs Road while residential estate homes would be built in southern Bonsall.
The clustering of residences in the five southern neighborhoods would allow for a biological open space buffer of 1,192 acres between the southern residential and commercial portion and the Bonsall neighborhood.
The development would also include 10.1 acres in the southeast portion which would be used for commercial and civic uses, 37 parks of various categories totaling 88.83 acres, and approximately 18.3 miles of trails.
In addition to providing recreational activities for residents, the parks would also be part of a 537-acre fuel modification zone which would serve as a fire buffer.
Manufactured and natural slopes and other open space areas, as well as the parks, would be irrigated to provide buffer zones of 150 to 200 feet from the edge of building pads. Emergency access roads would also be built.
Deer Springs Road would be widened from two lanes to four, and off-site intersection improvements would include the ramps at I-15 and Deer Springs Road and at I-15 and Gopher Canyon Road.
“We believe that we’ll be mitigating all of our impacts. We intend to do that,” said Merriam Mountains project manager Joe Perring. “We certainly don’t need roadways that are not sufficient for the people that we plan to live in our community.”
The Merriam Mountains project would also replace the existing Deer Springs Fire Protection District station south of Deer Springs Road with a new and larger station within the project boundaries.
While the widening of Deer Springs Road would improve that road’s Level of Service from Level F to Level C, Twin Oaks Sponsor Group chair Gil Jemmott notes that other roads which would be used for emergency evacuation would still be deficient.
“We have serious concerns regarding the emergency evacuation,” he said. “This is a big mistake. It could cost lives.”
Jemmott proposed an additional Interstate 15 interchange between Deer Springs Road and Gopher Canyon Road as an alternative to the project’s use of Deer Springs Road.
Jemmott noted that Deer Springs Road is often used as a bypass by non-residents when State Route 78 and Interstate 15 are congested. “There isn’t much additional capacity there,” he said.
Negotiations between Perring and the Deer Springs Fire Protection District have made progress on an evacuation plan, although the district still hasn’t approved such a plan.
“I believe that we’ll be able to work with these folks,” Perring said. “We’re in favor of an area-wide evacuation plan.”
Deer Springs Fire Protection District board president Robert Frey was optimistic about an agreement. “We can come to some resolution to provide the best planning we can,” he said.
“The Merriam Mountains project is a dangerous and inevitable fire trap,” said Coalition for Wildfire Safety founder Robert Coffman, who lives in nearby Welk Villas. “CWS is extremely concerned about fire danger.”
Coffman told the Planning Commission that a wildfire during Santa Ana winds could engulf the mountain within 15 minutes.
“Safe evacuation during a wildfire is impossible,” he said.
Coffman noted that the homes would be surrounded by areas of dry chaparral and that the open space buffer would include highly flammable vegetation.
“The failure to analyze these risks is a violation of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and should not be ignored,” he said.
“This project cannot be evacuated,” said Deer Springs Fire Protection District board member Robert Bruce Tebbs. “This project simply put is not safe.”
Tebbs noted that no proposed evacuation plan has yet been approved by the fire district. “That would make me a lot more comfortable if the evacuation plan was effective,” he said.
Deer Springs Fire Protection District board member Jean Slaughter noted that the creation of parks would serve as potential heliport stops as well as buffer zones, that the development would eliminate brush, and that the building of additional roads and installation of fire hydrants would provide additional resources for firefighters.
“Merriam Mountain will be safer if it’s developed,” Slaughter said.
“Merriam Mountain is a privately funded stimulus package in San Diego County,” said Belle Marie Winery owner Mick Dragoo.
Proponents and opponents also argued over whether the project met “smart growth” initiatives.
“This proposal is not a project. It is a tragedy,” said Duncan McFetridge of Save Our Forests and Ranchlands.
“This project will induce growth on the 15 corridor,” said Sandy Smith of Valley Center.
Smith noted that proposals for development along the I-15 corridor total 9,193 dwelling units, which would equate to approximately 30,000 residents.
Those figures do not include the Palomar College campus which will be built northeast of Interstate 15 and State Route 76.
“These projects that are outside the general plan are using each other to validate each other’s existence,” Smith said.
The new development proposals include 1,076 Passarelle units, 884 Meadowood dwellings, and 355 Campus Park West residences northeast of I-15 and Highway 76.
The new development proposals also include 300 Dulin Ranch homes and an additional 186 Pala Mesa units.
County staff has recommended overriding considerations as part of the environmental certification.
Recent state legislation now requires regional plans to integrate land use with greenhouse gas emission reductions, causing San Diego County planning agencies to seek local land for residents working within the county rather than expecting that growth to be served by Riverside County homes.
“Its 2,700 homes will help fulfill the projected development shortage,” said David Shibley of Escondido.
Shibley added that if estate homes were developed on that land the area would have less fire protection than if the Stonegate project were built.
“Most of that growth is going to have to be accommodated in master plan environments,” said Dick Daniels of Escondido. “My city can’t accommodate the kind of growth that we’re looking at.”
(Daniels noted that the City of Escondido has not taken a position on the project itself.)
“I think it represents wise growth,” said Pete Fagrell of Bonsall.
“The project’s location not only makes sense, it is wise,” Fagrell said. “It’s close to existing modes of transportation. It will bring transportation improvements to the area.”
In addition to the I-15 intersection improvements, the presence of another “smart growth” area along the I-15 corridor creates the possibility that the North County Transit District could add a north-south bus line which would connect both Merriam Mountain and the new Palomar College campus with the Escondido Transit Center.
The San Diego Association of Governments smart growth map is based on projects recommended by local jurisdictions, so the southeast Merriam Mountain portion could be added as a smart growth area if approved by the County of San Diego.
“We believe it is consistent with the goals and objectives of that plan,” said Stonegate attorney Deborah Rosenthal.
All five school districts which cover part of the development area – San Marcos Unified School District, Escondido Union Elementary School District, Escondido Union High School District, Bonsall Union Elementary School District, and Fallbrook Union High School District – have provided letters stating that the school districts have the ability to serve the children living in the new development.
Based on a county formula, the homes will equate to 7,614 residents including 1,208 children in their kindergarten through twelfth-grade years.