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2017 should bring decision on Safari Highlands project
By J. Harry Jones | December 31, 2016

Controversial proposal to build 550 luxury homes along mountainous land in the San Pasqual Valley should be decided this fall, after delays in the project’s environmental report pushed the time line back a few months.

The Safari Highlands Ranch neighborhood would be the largest residential project in Escondido in decades and would sit on 1,100-acres of undeveloped land north of the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. The property is in an unincorporated area zoned for only 27 homes, but Escondido officials and developer Concordia Homes are seeking to have the site annexed into the city, where the path to approval seems clearer.

Originally a draft environmental report was scheduled to have been released about now, but the city demanded some changes that have delayed the report until March or April, according to a consultant hired to oversee the proposal. “It’s a very complicated project,” project planner John Helmer said. “The whole thing is pretty hilly.”

Helmer — who reports to the city, but whose salary is being covered by Concordia — said he’s like Switzerland: a neutral party guiding the project through the planning process before the Escondido Planning Commission and City Council make decisions.

The delay is the result of several changes requested by city planners, including the elimination of an onsite water treatment plant and a public park that had been planned near the entrance to the project.

The development is strongly opposed by hundreds of residents who live in two communities just to the west — Rancho San Pasqual and Rancho Vista Monte — which account for a bit more than 650 houses. Others who live north of the site also have problems with the proposal, as do people in surrounding areas whose children go to an elementary school on Rockwood Road, where traffic heading to and from Safari Highlands Ranch would pass.

A nonprofit group called the San Pasqual Valley Preservation Alliance has been actively campaigning against the project.

“The land up there, the chaparral, the different species that call that area home — to do what (the developers) want to do up there will just forever change that land,” said San Pasqual resident NeySa Ely, who is helping lead the opposition. “I think it would be really sad to see that happen when there is so much that’s telling us its a bad plan in a bad area.”

Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz has consistently said she would never support the project, which she considers urban sprawl of the worst kind. But other members of the business-friendly council have defended Concordia’s rights to try to develop the land. All have said the devil will be in the details.

Helmer said he believes the council will support the development.

“I think the council wants to see the right project done that’s not a fiscal drain on the city and one that provides benefits to the community as a whole,” the consultant said. “They want to make sure there are no significant environmental issues that aren’t mitigated or compensated for.”

For nearly a decade the council has indicated its wants to see high-end housing built in the city, which in turn might encourage high-tech business to make Escondido their corporate homes.

Helmer said the average price of a home in Safari Highlands Ranch will be $900,000. Larger, more expensive homes would be built in the northern part of the project with smaller homes closer to the entrance of the gated development.

On a website for the project — — Concordia says the homes will be spread out over “five neighborhoods .. clustered to preserve the integrity of the existing topographical aesthetics” that make the area unique. Roughly 760 acres will remain as permanent open space.

Concordia Homes representatives have been regularly meeting with community groups to talk about the proposal and sending out updates on the project. They say that — in addition to the open space — the development will include a new fully equipped 7,000 square foot fire station; traffic signals and improvement on Cloverdale and Rockwood Road; over nine miles of public trails; and a new clubhouse/restaurant as well as improvements to the nearby Eagle Crest golf course.

One of the major sticking points with critics is that the development will feature only one main access road, along with two emergency roads that can only be used in the event of a major fire — like the massive Witch Creek/Guejito blaze that swept through the property in 2007. Whether the property has a legal easement to use the southern emergency road, which would be an extension of Zoo Road which runs past the back gate of Safari Park, is a point of legal contention — one that a judge may one day have to decide.

Helmer, the city consultant, said the fire/emergency road access is likely to be the development’s biggest challenge “because this is basically one long cul-de-sac.”

“This is a high fire hazard area,” he said. “There is no question about that.”

Ely says the project’s flaws are too numerous to list, though the preservation group has created a website,, that tries to lay them out.

“Some of the statistics that have come out are just mind-boggling,” she said, including one that says crews will have to remove 2.7 million cubic yards of earth to build the homes.

Ely said the city’s own General Plan discourages urban sprawl and instead emphasizes revitalization of existing communities.

Everett DeLano, a local environmental attorney retained by the alliance, said Safari Highlands is another version of what Accretive Investments wanted to do with the 1,746-unit Lilac HIlls Ranch project in Valley Center that voters countywide rejected in November.

“It’s the same kind of monster project on the edge of whatever,” he said.

Once the draft environmental report is released, a 45-day comment period will go into effect. The city will then address concerns raised during the comment period and in all likelihood the project will go before the city’s Planning Commission in late summer or early fall. A month later it should head to the City Council for a final vote.

During this time, the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission will also be processing the city’s annexation request.; 760/529-4931; Twitter: @jharryjones
Copyright © 2017, The San Diego Union-Tribune



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