Greenhouse.  "It wasn't too close to the street when the street was a dirt road."
  • Greenhouse. "It wasn't too close to the street when the street was a dirt road."
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"How did you find out about this?" asked Mark Collins, owner of Evergreen Nursery. I told him I spotted an item on the Rancho Penasquitos planning group agenda about his near 50-acre wholesale nursery going retail.

The planning meeting was packed — Collins brought a large framed aerial photo from his office wall.

According to Collins, the agenda item wasn't exactly accurate — even though Evergreen is San Diego's largest wholesale nursery, they've always sold retail too. "We're trying to legitimize what we've always done. It's been an ongoing battle with the city for years." Collins said the city has taken issue with his sales trailer, office space, and greenhouse — all structures he's used for 30 years or more.

April 2017 inspection photos showed compost piles exceeding the eight-foot limit.

Collins admits to building some structures sans permits. He's willing to make that right, but is perplexed at having to obtain a grading permit for something he did 37 years ago when there was nothing else around except a tomato farmer plowing fields he didn't own. Paved roads were years away.

Collins can sell a 16-gallon tree, but he can't sell a stake or bag of soil without a special permit.

Collins owns two other large nurseries in Oceanside and El Cajon. Collins moved to the latter after permitting squabbles with the city at his Rancho Bernardo location in early 2011. It was reported the nursery posed a risk to nearby Lake Hodges water quality. Evergreen's website stated the move was because the city wanted 30-year-old structures rebuilt.

The city says Collins can place the property up for sale at an asking price "not more than two percent above comparable properties within eight miles."

Collins got into the gardening game early as his father was the founder of Nurseryland (eventually sold to Armstrong Garden Centers in 1998).

Before the planning meeting, Collins took me on a tour of his mammoth nursery. He pointed out the greenhouse and sales trailer near the entrance — both have to go. We stopped at his office — a converted house. The plan is to turn the office back into a house, build a two-story office up front where the greenhouse now resides, and replace the sales trailer with a new greenhouse.

Plants, trees and flowers were seen at every turn as he drove me around the nursery. At the top was a composting operation.

I asked Collins when and what the impetus was for the city's demands. He said he's been fighting with the city for more than 30 years — but that a year ago the most recent round started. He said the city is demanding he obtain a permit so he can sell the same things he's been selling for 37 years. He elaborated by saying he can sell a 16-gallon tree, but he can't sell a stake or bag of soil without a special permit.

The planning meeting was packed — Channel 8 News and most everyone else was there for another agenda item. Collins brought a large framed aerial photo from his office wall to use as a visual. He pointed to the greenhouse the city says is too close to the street. "Let me assure you that it wasn't too close to the street when the street was way over here and it was a dirt road."

He pointed out that much of what the city is asking him to change pre-exists the rules. "Their intent is to create some sort of a preserve back there on the parts that I don't need — and again, that's like asking you — you built your house and 25 years later they decide they don't like your bathroom and you can only have one bathroom now — even though you own two bathrooms."

A board member asked if any of Collin's land is a nature-protected zone. Collins said when developers originally mapped the area, they labeled the core of his nursery as a protected zone. "Any instance when they could shove things up onto other people's properties — instead of theirs - they did."

Collins said the city might require a traffic study. "When we started operating, it was a dirt road — now it's a four-lane highway. We didn't bring in that traffic." He said the city wants to base Evergreen's traffic impact on the nursery's square footage. Collins said that number would speak of ten times the business they actually have.

I checked in with the city to get their side and was told the city attorney's office filed a criminal code enforcement case against Collins in December 2014. They emailed the June 2016 signed plea bargain agreement that details fines, orders, and options for Collins to keep jail and more fines at bay.

Orders include ceasing all illegal grading, stopping sales of unpermitted products, and submitting an erosion control plan. The three options for property use include either restoring the property to pre-1998 conditions, developing the property as a nursery, or placing the property up for sale at an asking price "not more than two percent above comparable properties within eight miles." The latter was by far the least onerous option. Comparable properties include more than 500 acres of open space the city owns adjacent to the nursery.

Collins cut off contact after I asked about the plea bargain. The city wasn't open to further questions either.

Before the planning meeting, Collins showed me a signed September 2016 application to develop the property. I was unable to confirm city receipt of this but the timing coincides with a September 2016 hearing for Collins to show compliance. Bolstering that is Collin's 2016 hire of super-lobbyist Paul Robinson to sway the city in acquiring this permitting.

The plea bargain states all the hoops Collins must jump through to develop his property into a nursery — the same nursery he started circa 1980.

Attached to the plea bargain were a 2010 document dealing with compost facility runoff and erosion protection measures and a 2004 court settlement agreement. The latter called out Collins for operating in excess of permitted composting capacity. Collins denied any wrongdoing but entered into the 2004 agreement, avoiding further litigation.

The only other code complaint I found for the nursery was from 2006 - hidden under a different address within the nursery. The development services department lodged this complaint about expired permitting and zoning. Referred to the city attorney, the complaint notes a follow-up is awaited from the city attorney's office as of November 2016.

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Comments

Cassander Aug. 14, 2017 @ 10:33 a.m.

This level of city aggression in code and other ex post facto enforcement only occurs for two reasons: the person pissed off the wrong people, or they have something that someone powerful wants.

While it sounds like there's a little bit of the former with Collins, one look at the map and the tell-tale phrase, "[place] the property up for sale at an asking price 'not more than two percent above comparable properties within eight miles'," is a dead giveaway that some developer expects this as a reward for his political contributions. Especially as there is "more than 500 acres of open space the city owns adjacent to the nursery," they're pulling every trick short of eminent domain to devalue his land to hand over for premium housing with pristine views.

4

Julie Stalmer Aug. 15, 2017 @ 5:27 a.m.

I definitely wish I could have gotten an answer from the city about the option to sell. It seems so specific and I couldn't find any other documents via a search on the city's website that gave any clues. I was left with a lot of questions.

2

Visduh Aug. 14, 2017 @ 8 p.m.

While I've found my few contacts and transactions with Evergreen to be less than satisfactory, there's a rat here. Oh yeah, he built a couple structures on what was essentially a farm without building permits years ago. But all this attention from code compliance is out of proportion to the impact on the neighbors. Hey, if you live in the slobberin' city, and you have a problem with a neighbor, just try calling in code compliance. IF you can even get city hall to answer the phone, you'll get a huge run-around before anything ever happens. You'll likely give up first. Why is that the case? Well, the code compliance inspectors and enforcers are out harassing guys like Collins. They apparently have unlimited time and resources to bring to bear on one place like that tree farm.

Cassander has it pegged very well. Some high-placed persons and interests want that land for development, and they will not stop until it is sold for that purpose.

3

Julie Stalmer Aug. 15, 2017 @ 5:44 a.m.

One of the questions that went unanswered from the city was who had lodged the complaint that led to the 2014 criminal code compliance case (external or internal?). I even tried asking general questions to get some sort of clue. It wasn't until I poked around some more that I found the 2006 complaint which pointed to the origin being from within the DSD. I'm still not sure if this is the original complaint that led to the 2014 criminal case. However, it does seem related.

I did ask Collins directly about any developers that might have made him any offers or if he suspected a developer might be pulling the strings, but he didn't want to speculate on the latter and he didn't confirm or deny the former.

The city may have some reason to be concerned about run-off, but without them spelling it out, it's hard to know.

2

JustWondering Aug. 16, 2017 @ 7:23 a.m.

Having dealth with DSD personally this, in my opinion, is simple case of extortion, perpetrated by the city "legally". You see they, DSD, is partially funded by fees it generates. So if you can extort those fees out of citizenry you're feathering your own nest. Without going into too many details for fear of repercussions, DSD tried this on me demanding a grading permit for a demolition. Their demands included a $8,000 fee. A simple "legal" extortion, but the occupied and surrounding surface grade was NOT being altered, just a structure removed.

1

JustWondering Aug. 16, 2017 @ 8:29 p.m.

That's not correct, there are components of DSD which are funded out of the City's General Fund, and not from fees. All you have to do is look at Vol II of the city budget under general fund expenditures.

But the point was when fees fund a large portion of your department's budget it is not only easy, and to your advantage, to charge as many fees as you can get away with but piling on fees is encouraged by supervisors & management. Hence the term legal extortion.

This is how corruption gains a foothold and why this department seems to be in perpetual turmoil.

2

jnojr Aug. 16, 2017 @ 7:49 a.m.

So... every issue the City is complaining about is about paperwork? Not "safety", but their claim he didn't fill out enough forms and write enough checks.

0

Julie Stalmer Aug. 16, 2017 @ 10:23 a.m.

Without the city and owner sharing more information, it's hard to know. There could be concern over runoff, and grading can be tied to that. But the impetus for the 2006 DSD complaint seems to be zoning and a conditional use permit which has nothing to do with concern over run-off it seems. But the plea bargain had a laundry list of demands beyond the 2006 complaint.

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Rabid_Koala Aug. 20, 2017 @ 11:18 a.m.

Seriously, if they tell him that he can list the property for sale (how generous of them!) they think they have a right to tell him what the listing price can be? The arrogance and greed of the City of San Diego and DSD never ceases to disgust me.

I'll be buying more stuff at Evergreen now, I want to see them fight the forces of greed (DSD) and win.

Other posters here are right, just try getting through to city departments to get something fixed. If you can't reach them on the phone, you can go in their offices, but you will get a know nothing person behind a window, and all of the employees hiding out in the back somewhere doing nothing. They only seem to go after the money.

1

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