North Coast Current

Elfin Forest, Harmony Grove keeping eye on development

Grading and erosion control measures are pictured Oct. 6 at the site of Harmony Grove Village, a new development in the rural enclaves of Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove. (North Coast Current photo)

North Coast Current

Grading and erosion control measures are pictured Oct. 6 at the site of Harmony Grove Village, a new development in the rural enclaves of Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove. (North Coast Current photo)

Alex Groves

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NEIGHBORS_EF_HRResidents of the communities of Elfin Forrest and Harmony Grove have long been at odds with potential development in the form of housing, schools and light industry, and that’s likely because there aren’t many places in North County that resemble the rural area that comprises them both.

The towns have been predominantly isolated locations that stand apart from the hustle and bustle of nearby cities such as San Marcos and Escondido. Coastal sage scrub and a number of species not usually found elsewhere mark the place as unusual.

But because of the area’s geographic proximity to other populated North County areas, development has been a constantly looming threat.

The current construction of the Harmony Grove Village development underscores the communities’ battle to keep urban sprawl from creeping into the rural area, and the potential effects such developments bring.

From the 1990s through the present, active town residents have attempted to halt a number of construction projects from occurring in order to “keep it rural,” an expression that has been adopted by the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council.

The council is one of several organizations dedicated to maintaining the area’s countryside character, and many of the residents who have worked to stop construction projects and urban growth have usually been associated with the council in some way or another. The website for the council discusses current and past threats in an attempt to bring the issues and their implications to the public.

Other organizations such as the San Dieguito Planning Group serve an important role of fostering communication between the residents of communities such as Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to bring about smarter planning and development.

Sizing up the impacts of growth

One of the most recent challenges that the council, planning group and residents have faced occurred in the late 2000s, when Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove found their rural standing threatened once again. Harmony Grove Village, a development of approximately 740 homes, was approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in 2007.

Two other projects – Harmony Grove Meadows and University Heights – also threatened the area’s rural character and were seeking approval through an amendment to the San Diego County General Plan in 2010. However, the projects faced financial trouble and have yet to materialize.

While the latter two developments lacked the wherewithal to survive, Harmony Grove Village received the final provisions necessary to begin construction in August 2011, and grading is now underway on what used to be a longtime egg ranch and dairy farm, and around a long-closed granite quarry.

Now that construction and movement of new residents to the area seems inevitable, people such as Escondido Creek Conservancy President Kevin Barnard are trying to analyze the impact of development.

Barnard, who also works as a member of the San Dieguito Planning Group, said some impact from the development is a sure thing, but it’s not clear how much things will change as houses start to pop up.

“The actual site of the project is probably fairly limited in its impact on actual habitat because the foothold of the project was in disturbed land that was agriculture and of that nature – egg ranches and dairy farms and things like that,” Barnard said. “There was some habitat that they (the developers) did disturb and they had to mitigate for that; they had to purchase like habitat and actually more of it elsewhere.”

This means that because some wildlands were impacted by the development, the developer of Harmony Grove Village, Standard Pacific, had to purchase lands that could not be developed in order to help maintain the area’s rural character, according to Barnard.

But it’s not just mitigation land practices that will be employed through the development of Harmony Grove Village.

In the 2011 Harmony Grove Village Specific Plan, requirements specify that the developer will have to restore some of the riparian and woodland areas as well as degraded creeks that were previously affected by the production of eggs and dairy at farms. So the plan also means that the restoration of some wildlands will take place concurrently with building.

However, in spite of those positives, greater population means some inevitable problems, according to Barnard.

Potential threats to ecology

Barnard said that actual habitat impact won’t come so much in the form of building, but more in the form of people and animals in the area. With more people calling Harmony Grove and Elfin Forest home, trails will be more heavily walked on and the animals in the wildlands will have more interaction with people than they ever did before.

Domestic animals can also pose a threat to the wildlife of the area because house cats and similar animals are often predators to smaller animals. However, Barnard said, it’s unclear to what extent cats and similar animals might pose a threat to the surrounding wildlife because they wouldn’t be the biggest creatures in the area.

“You’ve got issues like domestic animals, especially domestic cats, which can be very, very hard on wildlife,” he said. “It’s just issues like that, and I have to tell you that out in an area like that, some of the wildlife can be very, very hard on the cats themselves.”

One of the final threats Barnard mentioned is light pollution, which he said can alter animal behavior.

He said that, ultimately, all of these factors could prove to be net negatives that will impact the ecology of the area in some way.

Better for water quality?

Water pollution, on the other hand, may be a different story, according to Barnard, who said he suspects the water in the creek may eventually be cleaner with the subdivision than it was when the agricultural entities were still in business.

Greg McBain, a former civil engineer and a member of the Escondido Creek Conservancy’s Water Quality Committee, said that recent testing of Escondido Creek indicates that in recent months, the water has been lacking in quantities of chemicals that were in high numbers just a couple of years ago. The homes are located near streams and tributaries that lead into the creek.

McBain said in the six months following the removal of the egg ranch, those involved with the study have noticed a decrease in the quantity of ammonia, an animal waste product, in the water. In their most recent test, the Water Quality Committee determined ammonia levels were at their lowest point since the study began.

However, McBain said that it wouldn’t be correct to jump to conclusions by linking the decreasing amount of ammonia with the absence of the egg farm, and that the study needs to be continued for sometime longer to effectively determine whether that’s actually the case.

“To say categorically that that’s what’s happening – I don’t think we can quite say that yet,” he said. “Maybe if over time we see that trend continue and we see it not spike back up, then we can maybe say for the one constituent, there’s been a lowering.”

McBain said it’s important to remember, however, that there are definite problems worth recognizing with regard to urbanization. Primarily, with lawns in place instead of chaparral, greater quantities of nitrates can find their way into the surface water and spur algae blooms in the creek as well as the lagoon it leads into.

“As it is now, if you were to compare chaparrals to lawn, you would see an increase in surface water pollution,” he said.

Alex Groves is a freelance writer in the region

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Elfin Forest, Harmony Grove keeping eye on development