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— Mel Vernon leans against a black steel fence behind Quarry Creek Shopping Center, on the border of Carlsbad and Oceanside. Above him towers a massive signpost facing the traffic on State Route 78. Below him is El Salto Falls, San Diego’s largest coastal waterfall.

Sporting a gray ponytail and dressed in a faded San Luis Rey Native American T-shirt and jeans, Vernon, who is 58 years old, points out the path of Buena Vista Creek as it courses westward from the waterfall through 100 acres cluttered with heaps of concrete and mounds of tarp-covered dirt, the residue of a decades-long sand-and-gravel mining operation and the workings of a present-day recycling business.

The Quarry Creek Shopping Center is owned by McMillin Companies, a residential and commercial developer. The company purchased the center’s 54 acres from Hanson Aggregates, and McMillin has a purchase agreement with Hanson for another 160 acres, including the quarry’s 100 acres, 56 acres west of the quarry, and 4 acres north of the shopping center, the land on which El Salto Falls lies.

At one time the falls plunged 40 feet. Now, in the aftermath of flooding in the 1980s, the water cascades 15 or 20 feet, mostly hidden from view amidst the quarry’s rubble.

Long before construction on the shopping center began, environmental and cultural preservationists became concerned about the development’s proximity to the falls. Vernon was one of the people who tried to stop the center’s construction, and he’s continued to fight for the preservation of his ancestral land.

“For the Luiseño people, our creation story is here,” says Vernon, the newly elected chair for the San Luis Rey tribal council. “Our ancestors are still buried here. This land connects us with our past and shows a continuity of who we are as a people.”

The falls were a cultural and spiritual center for the Luiseños, Vernon says, and the California Native American Heritage Commission has registered El Salto Falls as an official Native American Sacred Site. According to Carlsbad-based archeologist Dennis Gallegos, a Native American village existed just west of the quarry. A diary written by a member of Gaspar de Portolá’s expedition to San Francisco in 1769 mentions the falls and encounters with Native Americans near them. But during the past 40 years, the quarry’s hillsides have been carved away, historical artifacts destroyed or buried. Since 1995, the site’s sole use has been for recycling concrete and asphalt.

Early in 2009, McMillin Companies will be submitting a revised “concept” master plan to build 500 to 600 affordable housing units on the 160 acres that include the old quarry.

Local preservation groups, including Carlsbad’s Historic Preservation Commission, San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians, Buena Vista Audubon Society, League of Women Voters, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), and Preserve Calavera — responsible for securing 134 acres of ecological preserve just west of the quarry — have joined forces in an effort to prevent the high-density development.

Most of the quarry is located in the city of Carlsbad, and for Carlsbad, the housing project would fulfill part of a state mandate that requires more affordable housing be built in the city.

“The state gives us a number of units we’re supposed to meet,” says Van Lynch, senior planner for Carlsbad. “This site has been identified for anywhere from 500 to 600 units.” Lynch says the city needs a total of 2000 units to fulfill the state’s requirement.

In 2006, the San Diego Association of Governments showed its support for the high-density development by identifying the site as a potential location for “smart growth.” The designation qualifies Carlsbad to apply for “funding incentives” from the association.

Brian Milich, senior vice president at McMillin, believes the support of Carlsbad and the association of governments reaffirms his company’s intentions for the property.

“From the City of Carlsbad’s perspective and San Diego Association of Governments’ perspective, there is definitely an interest in seeing housing put on the creek,” he says. “Those two designations solidify, to a large degree, that the site is appropriate for some level of development. That gives us cause to continue our efforts to put together a master plan.”

Vernon says building a housing development alongside the falls would be like “putting a waterfall in an alleyway.

“Development here would destroy something unique and something that can never be replaced, both environmentally and culturally speaking,” he says.

Before McMillin can build on the land, Hanson Aggregates is required to implement a reclamation plan to return the quarry to safe and usable conditions. In late September, Hanson submitted a draft environmental impact report on its reclamation plan to the City of Oceanside, the lead city overseeing the reclamation process. In addition, Hanson is remediating soil, piled into mounds and covered with tarp, that was contaminated by a leaking gas storage tank.

Meanwhile, preservation groups are looking for funds to acquire the land, or at least the land under El Salto Falls.

Milich says his company hasn’t received any formal offers yet. “Some groups are interested in seeing if they can acquire some portions of the property,” he says, “and we told them that we’d talk to anybody interested. But we’d only consider selling a portion in conjunction with an overall plan for the entire property. In other words, we’re not going to just pick off a piece — we’re going to do it all as a comprehensive project. And I’m not aware of anybody right now who has the money to purchase even a portion of the property.”

Don Christiansen, from the Carlsbad Historical Society, says Carlsbad should take the initiative. “The City has taken the position that there is not a willing seller and has declined to move forward,” he says. “I have taken the position that there is a willing seller because McMillin has only an option to purchase the land. It is for sale. It’s just that McMillin has it tied up. Many of us feel that if the City can justify $70 million for a golf course that most of us don’t use, they can justify acquiring open space that most of us want.”

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