To North Country residents living near Merriam Mountains, it feels like Dr. Frankenstein is bringing that monster back to life. A monster called urban sprawl the community chased out of their backcountry in 2010.
Back then, the mammoth housing development was called Merriam Mountains. It's now called Newland Sierra, but the opposition's pitchforks are jabbing at the same worries: density, traffic, wildfire evacuations, water, air quality, noise, views, greenhouse gas emissions, general plan amendments, and the matter of blasting apart a mountain range formed when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
Abagail Henry, San Marcos native, started a Stop Newland Sierra Facebook page a couple years ago. She said Merriam Mountains are special to her and others who've gotten engaged there and who hold memorials for people and animals. "If you look closely, you can still see old Native American marks across the land, along with old rock carvings from passer-bys in the early 1900s."
Henry said Twin Oaks Valley (San Marcos) residents are no strangers to blasting, having had "to endure blasting from two different rock quarries since the early-1980s." Residents say the worst of it is the fine dust that covers everything, making it difficult to breath.
The proposed project within Merriam Mountains is along the I-15 corridor in San Marcos (unincorporated area), east of Vista and north of Escondido, sandwiched between the communities of Twin Oaks Valley and Hidden Meadows.
Kathe Robbins, a retired teacher, lives 1.2 miles away and can view the hilltops where Newland Sierra homes are proposed. She moved to Twin Oaks Valley in 1985 to live in a more rural setting to raise her children and to grow her own food. "We traded convenience for space." Robbins said this is the third time in thirty years a developer has come to "carve out giant pieces of our granite mountain" to develop "a new city the size of Del Mar."
Robbins' main concerns are the destruction of the mountain that hundreds of wildlife call home (county staff said blasting will take five years), how approving this project ignores the county's 2011 general plan (that down-zoned Merriam Mountains), and how the developer is not building the needed infrastructure before building homes.
As Robbins was gearing up for battle at the September 26 county board of supervisor's hearing, she received some welcome news on September 13. A superior court judge issued a stay on the approval of projects in unincorporated areas of San Diego that rely on offsetting greenhouse gas emissions with purchased carbon credits from out of the country. The lawsuit was filed by the Sierra Club and Golden Door (luxury spa across from project).
February 2018 guidelines (part of the county's climate action plan) state that projects requiring general plan amendments, that might intensify greenhouse gas emissions, are allowed to purchase carbon offset credits to make up for any emissions they can't manage with onsite design and mitigation. Opponents say the county's claim to be a leader in fighting climate change doesn't jive with paving urban sprawl with tens of millions in carbon credits.
Newland Sierra has touted their project as the county's "first carbon neutral community." Their technical report points to carbon credits. While these credits don't change the actual environmental impacts to a community, it allows Newland to legally make the "carbon neutral" claim.
At June's planning commission hearing, commissioner Michael Beck asked county staff about greenhouse emission policies that "require mitigation to occur in the county." Staff said they didn't interpret the policy to mean that all emissions need to be mitigated within the county.
Beck replied, "So the policy doesn't say what I read it to say and that is that you need to mitigate in the county? That policy doesn't say that?" Staff replied, "That's not the way the county interprets that policy. No."
The next court date for the carbon credits lawsuit is December 21, leaving some to wonder if Newland Sierra's upcoming hearing will be rescheduled. Developers likely have the votes with the current make-up of the board.
The future is less certain with two long-serving supervisors termed out this year (Bill Horn and Ron Roberts) and two more termed out in 2020 (Greg Cox and Dianne Jacob).
Two Republican candidates vying for supervisor seats in 2018 are likely to vote Newland's way (former district attorney Bonnie Dumanis and San Marcos mayor Jim Desmond), while two Democrat candidates are less certain to (former state assembly member Nathan Fletcher and legislative analyst Michelle Gomez).
Dumanis and Fletcher are vying for Roberts' seat and Desmond and Gomez are vying for Horn's seat. Desmond is Horn's pick to replace him and both Desmond and Dumanis are endorsed by the building industry association or BIA. At a February BIA event, Dumanis said she would not support an initiative requiring countywide public voting for general plan amendments in unincorporated areas (think Lilac Hills). This initiative is likely to be on the 2020 ballot.
Rita Brandin of Newland (Newland Sierra front-person) is vice chair of the BIA PAC (consists mostly of homebuilders) that endorses Desmond and Dumanis and doesn't support statewide measure Proposition 10 or a local measure in National City (rent control).
In July, supervisors unanimously voted through (Jacob absent) one bundle of three projects (3,850 homes) south of Newland Sierra in San Dieguito (Harmony Grove and Valliano) and in Otay Mesa (Otay 250).
The county is bundling these large projects because they're only allowed to amend the general plan four times a calendar year (bundled projects count as one amendment). Watching planning commissioner David Pallinger and county development services director hash this out on video, it sounded like a loophole to me. A lawsuit was reportedly filed against the board of supervisors about this.
If the board votes through Newland Sierra (2135 homes) in September and in December votes through another bundle (Lilac Hills, Warner Ranch, and Otay Ranch Village: 4056 homes), that will be 10,000 homes approved in three hearings. Voters defeated Lilac Hills in 2016.