"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.
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.
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 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.
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.
According to the city's code enforcement priorities, unpermitted grading is a significant violation that carries hefty fines and possible jail time. Lesser priorities include unpermitted construction. It looks like illegal grading may be of great importance in Collin's case as it is listed in the plea bargain immediately after mention of fines and jail time.
State documents going back to 2000 indicate some concerns about the composting operation but not much as far as violations. April 2017 inspection photos showed compost piles exceeding the eight-foot limit. Keeping it below eight feet was noted as a condition of the 2004 court settlement.
As far as the city attorney's timeline of bringing the criminal case in 2014 — events surrounding that time included an August 2013 permit update showing different personnel operating the compost facility and later that year, a two-story structure at the nursery caught on fire (suspected electrical problem).
A far more serious fire occurred in 2010 before Collins vacated his Rancho Bernardo location over tensions with the city — a car fire was reported in a remote part of the nursery — a dead body found inside. Later that same month, tragedy struck his Oceanside nursery when an employee died in a freak mulching machine accident.
Without more context from the city, it's hard to know why the city is requiring grading permits for something that happened almost 40 years ago or if their option to sell — at no more than two percent within eight miles — is standard or tailored — and for what reason (does someone want to develop Collin's land?). Though, it's entirely possible this is all tied to concerns the city may have about runoff from the nursery to their adjacent property.