How to jam 550 homes on land zoned for 27 homes
By Don Greene / Escondido Democrats
In one of the more poignant scenes in the movie, The Lion King, Musafa says to young Simba, “Look, Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom.” It seems that we have a touch of that same attitude on our City Council. As Mayor Abed and the rest of the council majority look out to the east, you can almost hear him say the same thing.
Instead of birthrights and becoming King of the Animals, Abed speaks in our hypothetical of property rights and becoming King of the Developers. The land he looks over is the proposed Safari Highlands Ranch project, a 1084-acre land annexation and subsequent 550-home development, in unincorporated Escondido, just north and west of the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park.
This project, and the means by which they intend to bring it to fruition, fits the S.O.P. of Abed and the council majority; they work the backroom deals with the developers and other agencies and put on a happy face with the public.
Everyone has heard the urban legend about the frog and the boiling pot of water. The legend goes that if you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, it will jump out to avoid being boiled alive. But, if you place the frog in a cool pot of water and slowly heat it, the frog will not detect the changes in heat and remain until its demise.
Abed wants to place Escondido in a big pot of cold development and slowly turn up the heat by slow walking this project through all the pre-approval stages. By the time this project needs to be entitled and have maps approved, all the groundwork will have been done and all the obstacles will have been removed; all the while the public is assured that “nothing is being approved right now.” But that uncomfortable feeling you have is the heat being turned up underneath us and the helplessness knowing that this project is being pushed through against the will of those who will be most affected.
There are a lot of players and agencies in this story, so let’s unpack the latest and provide some history.
This project was first proposed in the early 2000’s. Essentially the same plans were looked at and rejected during that time because there were a number of pressing concerns: there was an high level of fire danger in that area; there was only one, two-lane road identified as ingress and egress; there was no infrastructure in place; and the effect it would have on the local residents was too high.
Fast forward to 2014 and this project, with a new developer, rears its ugly head once more and, with some changes to the amenities, there is no difference in the plan. Same fire danger, same two-lane road as access and same effect on local residents.
The amenities are an important point in this story. The County of San Diego’s General Plan for this area allows for 27 homes to be built. If the City of Escondido annexes this land, and the developer is allowed to build on the property, they are allowed 275-plus homes. But, if the developer agrees to add public amenities, then they are allowed to build up to 550 homes. Guess which option the developers have asked for?
The developer has opted to include a park for the development, a fire station and a waste treatment plant. Of course, the developers have not agreed to pay for the maintenance of these new city facilities, but they’ve agreed to build them. The City of Escondido will need to staff the firefighters and buy the trucks. The City will need to maintain the park and pay for the water. And the City of Escondido will need to maintain and staff the water treatment plant, along with mitigate for the increased capacity in out outflow to the Pacific. I write more about these items later.
Can You Feel the Love Tonight?
The next major step this project needs to get through, and coincidentally the step that was approved by the council majority at the meeting of August 26, is to submit the project to LAFCO for approval of the annexation.
AFCO, the San Diego Local Area Formation Commission, is the county body which approves local jurisdictions annexing unincorporated county land into a city. Each municipality has what is called a Sphere of Influence (SOI) which usually extends the borders of the city out to cover the areas of the county that would be affected by land use decisions made by the city. If the city wishes to annex that land into its borders, then it would need to seek approval from this body.
Escondido is doing just that. LAFCO is requiring, because of the size of this project, that the city update its entire SOI. This is a process which should happen every 10-15 years, but can happen sooner if LAFCO so requires. The city is including some other changes with this project in this SOI update.
So, you may ask, who pays for this update? Ordinarily the city pays for this update, as it is a regularly scheduled and required process. In this circumstance, the developer, Concordia Homes, in the kindness of their hearts, is paying for this study to be done. Can you feel the love? No? Maybe this will help. You may also ask what the possibility is of this project passing the review through LAFCO? Mayor Abed is Vice Chair of the agency, and his good friend Supervisor Bill Horn is the Chair. Are you feeling the love now?
The Circle of Life
This backroom, underhanded way of doing business in Escondido is nothing new. Take for instance the development that is happening in the so-called “North Broadway Deficiency Area.” The developers came before the council and, if you’ll remember, asked for a reduction in fees. They received a deep discount from just over $17,000 per unit down to $12,500 per unit. And, Council member Masson actually asked if the fees needed to be lower.
The fact the developers are paying for studies up front and, in the words of the council majority, we’re only looking at whether this project is viable or not, says that the same games are at play in the city. If we’re not careful and observant, this project will be built before we know what hit us. And, we’ll be left with holding the bill for a lesser quality of life.
Take for example the amenities which I mentioned above. There is an obvious benefit for the taxpayers to hire new firefighters to staff a new fire station and to hire new workers to maintain a park and a waste treatment facility. But none of these new amenities will benefit the residents of the greater city, they will only benefit those new 550 homes built out in the middle of fire country.
The city struggles with maintaining its existing parks. How then will it be able to maintain yet another? The city struggles with adequate police and fire coverage and response times. How will adding 550 potential new service calls affect the other residents of the city? And the biggest question: How will adding a waste treatment plant to a system that is near capacity now help the residents of Escondido? The answer is: They won’t. But the answers to those questions are unimportant to the council majority.
I Just Can’t Wait to be King
Another consideration through all of this is the upcoming political season. Abed is running for Supervisor. If elected, he and his buddy Bill Horn will run roughshod over the rest of the unincorporated areas of the county and development will happen everywhere; there will be no sacred land, including Rancho Guejito which is only a stone’s throw away.
At the council meeting on the 26th, Abed told those who spoke out against the project and its inclusion in the SOI update that, “Of course there will be impacts on the city,” and “We’re not approving anything tonight.” It’s the same shuck and jive that we hear every week from him and his council. There is only a small line of defense that can stop him from destroying the city and county that we love, and small line is us.
We will be motivating the troops and asking you to work to protect this land and turn away this project. Only through constant vigilance and opposition can we be victorious. We hope that you’ll rise to the call.