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Supes vote for reconsideration of Merriam Mountains project

The proposed Stonegate Merriam Mountains development will have another San Diego County Board of Supervisors hearing on March 24.

The supervisors heard debate on the proposed project December 9, and a 2-2 vote denied the project the three votes needed for passage. Supervisor Ron Roberts, who was in Sacramento for a California Air Resources Board meeting the day of the original hearing, asked for a reconsideration of the matter, and on January 13 the supervisors voted 3-2 to grant a new hearing and take another vote on the zone reclassification, general plan amendment, specific plan amendment, vesting tentative map, and site plan associated with the project.

“I think the appropriate thing is we have a full hearing before the full board,” Roberts said.

Under the reconsideration procedure, which had not been used by the Board of Supervisors for at least 25 years, the new hearing is a “de novo” hearing in which all public speakers can testify regardless of whether they commented at the previous hearing.

At the December 9 hearing, Supervisors Bill Horn and Greg Cox voted in favor of the project while Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price voted in opposition. Although a 2-2 tie vote is equivalent to a denial since three votes were not obtained, any county supervisor has 30 days to request reconsideration. The request itself is docketed for a Board of Supervisors meeting, and if the reconsideration is approved the hearing itself will occur at a subsequent meeting.

Horn and Cox joined Roberts in supporting the motion for reconsideration, which included the March 24 hearing date. Jacob and Slater-Price opposed the reconsideration.

“We had a full public hearing, a fair public hearing,” Jacob said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we have to take everybody’s time to do this.”

Jacob was originally elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1992 and cannot recall a previous 2-2 vote on a land use issue. She previously worked as a staff aide for her predecessor, George Bailey, and does not believe that any 2-2 votes have occurred since Bailey was elected in November 1984. (Jacob worked for Bailey during his entire eight years on the Board of Supervisors.)

The only possible action the supervisors could take on the reconsideration motion was to approve or deny the reconsideration request and to set a date for the new hearing if the request was approved. Public comment on the reconsideration motion was allowed, although the members of the public were instructed to focus on the reconsideration motion rather than the project itself. The item drew 23 speakers in favor of the reconsideration and 17 speakers in opposition.

Many of the speakers in opposition requested that Horn recuse himself from the vote claiming he had inappropriate contact with the project applicant prior to the original hearing. County Counsel, however, has not made a finding that Horn would need to recuse himself but is reviewing public records requests to determine if such contact occurred.

Ironically, many opponents of reconsideration cited some of the same issues as Roberts, who believes that such issues raised during the December 9 hearing need to be addressed by county staff and the applicant prior to a new hearing. The issues include water availability, traffic, fire protection, construction-related noise, appropriateness of density in the particular location, and compliance with state greenhouse gas reduction legislation.

The issue of greenhouse gas reduction will also allow further analysis of an Attorney General’s opinion that the Environmental Impact Report is inadequate. 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. County staff has recommended overriding considerations as part of the environmental certification.

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

The existing general plan allows for 345 homes on the site. The original proposal called for 2,700 residential units of various housing types in six different neighborhoods, although when the county’s Planning Commission voted 5-2 October 23 to recommend conditional approval of the project the conditions included replacing a 77-unit multi-family complex at the southwest corner of one of the neighborhoods with one-acre lots which would create eight or nine units.

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.

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

The Planning Commission’s other conditions would 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, limit blasting to five days a week between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., 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, 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, 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.

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.

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.

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