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Planning Commission recommends conditional approval of Merriam Mountains project

The county’s Planning Commission voted 5-2 October 23 to recommend conditional approval of the proposed Stonegate Merriam Mountains development.

Commissioners Leon Brooks, Adam Day, David Pallinger, John Riess, and Bryan Woods supported approval with the conditions while Michael Beck and Peder Norby voted in opposition. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors are expected to hear the

proposal December 9 before deciding whether to approve or deny the zone reclassification, general plan amendment, specific plan amendment, vesting tentative map, and site plan associated with the project.

“This project for the most part meets the tenets of what we’ve been trying to do,” Pallinger said. “From a common sense standpoint it seems to me this is a place where growth could occur.”

The original proposal called for 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 issues discussed both at the October 23 hearing and at an all-day meeting October 9 (the continuance allowed commissioners to make site visits) included a 77-unit multi-family complex at the southwest corner of one of the neighborhoods. One of the conditions listed by the Planning Commission was to replace that portion with one-acre lots which would create eight or nine units, thus reducing the total number of dwelling units to 2,611 or 2,612.

The Planning Commission’s other conditions will require the developer to present an evacuation plan approved by the Deer Springs Fire Protection District, require use of rubberized asphalt on Deer Springs Road as additional noise mitigation, require muffling for construction equipment and limit blasting to five days a week between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

They would require a post-construction sound study for Deer Springs Road and add additional permanent noise attenuation to protect the Golden Door Spa if the post-construction noise exceeds 75 decibels, provide left-turn and right-turn vehicle access to the Golden Door main driveway and require increased setbacks in five lots and modify the specific plan to establish guidelines to ensure that homes along Deer Springs Road are not in that viewshed. Finally, they would also require all biological open space uses to meet the biological standards of the county’s existing Multiple Species Conservation Program, and increase the percentage of low-emission construction fleet vehicles from 10 percent to 25 percent.

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.

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.

“It provides significant valuable road and infrastructure improvements,” Day said.

Negotiations between Merriam Mountains project manager Joe 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.

“What we are concerned about is that interface between land use planning and evacuation, said Deer Springs Fire Protection District board president Robert Frey. “When the fire comes, evacuation will take place.”

Perring is also looking into the possibility that the Fallbrook Land Conservancy would provide on-site management of the open space.

Bonsall Sponsor Group chair Margarette Morgan asked for connectivity between the project’s northern trails and Bonsall’s trails.

“The trails that are in the Bonsall area do not connect with any pre-existing trails,” she said. “It dead-ends at the property line.”

Perring is not averse to that idea if a suitable connection can be found.

“Our idea in putting together our trails plan was to take advantage of the existing dirt roads in the area,” he said. “We looked at the adjacent areas’ trail map, and to the extent possible we want to connect to those.”

The Bonsall estate homes would be accessed from existing private roads, which would remain private roads but would be improved to current standards.

In addition to traffic, noise, and evacuation issues, proponents and opponents also argued over whether the project met “smart growth” initiatives. 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.

“Our project includes many elements of smart growth,” Perring said. “The property is located next to existing infrastructure.”

The “smart growth” concept focuses on locating projects west of the San Diego County Water Authority boundaries and close to existing roads.

“This is a perfect place for this type of development. You’ve got the infrastructure there,” Day said. “This is the whole concept behind smart growth, and that’s where it should be going.”

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. Ironically, the existing density might not be sufficient to meet “smart growth” criteria.

“It would require higher density,” said county Department of Planning and Land Use director Eric Gibson.

The existing general plan allows for 345 homes on the site.

“What is so compelling about this project that would allow me to vote or to offer my advice that it should be increased to 2,700 homes?” Norby asked. “I cannot unless I hear other testimony.”

Norby explained that he would not approve a downzone without significant reason and thus could not approve the upzone without a compelling reason.

Norby also noted that the business area served freeway traffic and that the project had no village core. “This is a real community and this is a real city-sized project,” he said. “It does not represent smart growth.”

Based on a county formula, the homes will equate to 7,614 residents including 1,208 children in their kindergarten through twelfth-grade years. All five school districts which cover part of the development area – the San Marcos Unified School District, the Escondido Union Elementary School District, the Escondido Union High School District, the Bonsall Union Elementary School District, and the 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.

“I’m concerned that there is no school on this site,” Norby said. “This is an intense urban development,” Beck said. “Every hill that I’m looking at is going to be cut down and put into every valley that I’m looking at.”

Beck noted the need for multiple evacuation roads.

“At least one of your roads is going to become fire-engulfed,” said Beck.

The lack of an existing evacuation plan was one of Beck’s reasons for opposing the project.

“I don’t see that there is a resolution of a serious issue,” said Beck.

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