North Coast Current

San Marcos residents fighting controversial housing project

Opponents to the proposed San Marcos Highlands development have been tracking the project at www.sanmarcoshighlands.com. (North Coast Current)

North Coast Current

Opponents to the proposed San Marcos Highlands development have been tracking the project at www.sanmarcoshighlands.com. (North Coast Current)

Alex Groves

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San Marcos city planners are set to give their official analysis of a proposed 198-unit, high-density home development on Jan. 6 before the City Council, but the project will face a number of challenges from residents who say they are less than thrilled about its implications for the surrounding environment.

The proposed housing development, The San Marcos Highlands, would be built between Las Posas Road and Buena Creek Road in San Marcos. The area is primarily composed of privately owned land that has remained vacant as many other parts of the city have been built up.

The proposed development of the area has been a contentious issue that has reared its head multiple times over the past few decades.

The project was first proposed in 1990 and then again in 2002, but it was ultimately rejected both times as a result of strong community objections to side effects such as increased traffic, overcrowding of schools and negative impacts to the area’s fragile ecosystem. It appears that these same concerns are moving many residents to stand against the project now.

Residents such as Kevin Mecum, a homeowner in the nearby Santa Fe Hills development, have stood against the project because of its negative impact to the area’s aesthetic.

Mecum said that he was always aware of the possibility of more homes being built in the area but didn’t believe those homes would be built on the ridgeline that gives the area its signature look.

Mecum and other individuals are so concerned with the possibility of the City Council approving the project that they have gone as far as preparing a lawsuit on the grounds that the decision is based on invalid and archaic environmental documentation.

“There is a group of people who have raised money and paid a lawyer,” he said. “So if the City Council passes it there will be a lawsuit and the city has been informed of that, too, so they know.”

Mecum said that much of the documentation the City Council is reviewing is invalid because it combines analyses and information from reports done in 1990 and 2002. Only a few tests that were determined to be invalid were redone, according to Mecum.

But there’s also another issue that Mecum and others say they’re confused about, and that’s the fact that the proposed construction would take place in an area that should be protected.

Ballot initiative number 2006-1258, which was approved in 2008, creates a ridgeline protection and management overlay zone that essentially prohibits building on a large chunk of the city’s ridgeline areas.

Currently, the privately owned land is not part of San Marcos but is considered part of the city’s sphere of influence. This means that once approved by the council, the land can become part of the city.

However, if the ridgeline area becomes part of the city, it will instantly be incorporated within the area that should theoretically be protected, an issue those opposed to the project are hoping to address when the Planning Commission issues its initial recommendation.

For many individuals such as Palomar College Professor Lesley Blankenship-Williams, the major issue worth addressing is the project’s potential impact on the types of wildlife that call the area home.

The area currently harbors a unique ecological feature called a riparian corridor, which consists of a body of water surrounded by dense vegetation.

In the case of the land near Las Posas Road, the corridor consists of a creek and a pond. The creek is a natural seasonal development whereas the pond is dammed, but both are marked by high amount of surrounding vegetation.

It’s this kind of feature that has drawn a variety of wildlife such as coyotes, dear, birds and even mountain lions.

Advocates for the project have argued that building in the area is actually good for the riparian corridor for two key reasons.

The first reason is that the landowner and developer of the project, Farouk Kubba, wants to restore the corridor to the way it was before the 1940s. This in effect means that that the dammed pond would be drained to leave only one contiguous stream and that non-native species that have made their way into the area would be removed.

The second reason is that the project’s use of a high-density style would save close to 83 percent of the land from development and leave species in the area relatively unharmed, according to Matt Simmons, vice president of field operations for Consultants Collaborative.

Consultants Collaborative is the firm that has been working with Kubba to create a development plan.

However, Blankenship-Williams, speaking for herself and not representing Palomar College, said she remains unconvinced that restoration of the riparian corridor or minimally invasive construction are actually good things. She has argued that those actions could pose more harm to the area than the developer is indicating.

“The problem with the removal of the pond is there’s actually kind of a grate in there and right underneath it is just bedrock,” she said. “It’s not going to hold the soil to be able to support the plants and so you’re going to end up basically with a mud stream and what somebody classified as a one-way waterslide for wildlife; you’ll just have a muddy mess that essentially runs downstream and the erosion will be substantial.”

Blankenship-Williams said the problem would be further compounded with development on both sides of the currently vacant land, and that the development would fracture the land into mostly separate segments that would only be linked through small passageways.

“The large animals are likely going to avoid the area altogether because of human presence, whether it be traffic or anything else,” she said. “If it’s not natural habitat they’re just going to avoid it, and when that happens you end up with habitat fragmentation, which is the number one cause of local extinction.”

But Simmons said he disagrees with Blankenship-Williams’ characterization of the development as habitat fragmentation because the corridors linking all the wildlands together are large enough to meet standards set forward by the wildlife agencies in San Diego County.

“The east-to-west range on our property connects what the wildlife agencies call a stepping stone environmental area, where you’ve got a preserve on one side and developed land on the other,” Simmons said, “and the required permit minimums for that is that we have a corridor that is at a 500-foot width minimum with an exception of a choking point that is allowed to go down to 400 feet for no longer than 500 feet in linear distance.

“However, we have been able to pull our project back from the approved footprint, reducing those impacts and increasing that corridor, so that our pinch point has gone away,” he said.

Now all the corridors are 500 feet or more in width, according to Simmons.

Simmons also said that the high-density development has allowed a large percentage of the land to remain intact in a way that no other plan would allow because any alternative location or a less-dense buildup would create harsh habitat fragmentation.

However, Blankenship-Williams said that characterization of the project is disingenuous.

“What’s not being mentioned is the part that they’re building on is the absolute most valuable part of the entire land,” she said. “Imagine if you had 100 acres, 10 acres of which are lush rainforest and 90 acres of which are barren sand dunes and you built on the 10 acres that have the rainforest. Yeah, you could say you were preserving 90 percent of the land, but you wouldn’t really be preserving the habitat.”

Alex Groves is a freelance writer in the region

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San Marcos residents fighting controversial housing project