The Values of a Neighborhood
by Carolyn Chase
Many long-term San Diego residents nostalgically complain that life
here isn't as good as it used to be.. Yet another "used to be"
is about to go down in North County.
ust east of Torrey Pines State Park, Carmel Mountain
sustains the last relatively undisturbed stand of the coastal maritime shrub
ecosystem in the state of California. Acre for acre, this is most biologically
valuable habitat with the greatest number of endangered and threatened plants
and animals in the County. This land is virtually a natural island in a
sea of development, just over the rise from the constant flow of cars on
Interstate 5. The City of San Diego's Master Plan refers to this area as
"Neighborhood 8A" in the "Future Urbanizing Area."
My recent visit to 8A wasn't to visit the land, but
the neighborhood - some of the people who live there. The occasion was a
meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee of Peñasquitos Canyon
Preserve where I serve as the Sierra Club Park Committee representative.
Our meeting was being held nearby, and the development plan for 8A was the
major agenda item. I had the opportunity to learn a few things about this
'hood. I was in the real neighborhood - with the neighbors themselves.
Own sweet own
The Pardee Corporation, the largest single landholder, owns 190 of 8A's
404 acres. In addition, private landowners hold numerous smaller parcels.
Current zoning allows one home per 10 acre parcel.
Pardee has applied to upgrade the zoning and to build
expensive single-family homes in the area. They would, of course, leave
some open space (their previous plan to overdevelop was rejected by the
Planning Commission and was withdrawn before the City Council had a chance
to do the same).
Many residents of the area - as well as many environmentalists and citizens
concerned with the quality of life in San Diego - passionately oppose this
development and want the land to stay in it's undisturbed, sparsely-populated
In the land of the rich and the tanned, its "Big
Developer" vs. "Scrub Lovers," Community Planning or Property
Rights. The Scrub Lovers are as grass roots as it gets: community members
trying to save something they love. The developer - a Los Angeles-based
subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser - is pretty much as big and rich as it gets.
The actors are in place, the script has been written, and the stage is set
for the drama to play out.
It comes down to the value of the land, now and at some
future time. Are strictly economic values to prevail? Whose values should
carry the most weight in this type of conflict? Whose rights? How much in
taxes will be raised or sacrificed by a particular outcome? What will the
resulting property values of the surrounding landowners be? What kind of
community will be created, or destroyed? And according to whose values?
What's in a name?
The difference in values is first revealed in the name itself. The bureaucrats
and some of the owners call it "8A," referring to a specific area
of land, with a specific zoning, borders, etc.
Other locals living in the area refer to it as Carmel
Mountain. They tend to talk about the smells, wildflowers and wildlife that
are part of the land. They are in touch with its precious nature, and the
rarity of this large ecosystem, so near the ocean in California.
The players in attendance at the meeting that night were a case study of
the suffering caused when your lifestyle is threatened - a natural consequences
of the deep connection that can arise between a person and the land where
they live or grew up. Ann will be heartbroken as the development proceeds.
Diana is angry and will get angrier still. Christian's mother, Bunny, is
already heartbroken and has had to steel herself through the process. Lillian
has been staring down the barrel of a bulldozer for so long, and has already
given so much, that she can be counted upon to stand by her land.
The same kind of love or connection with the land won't
come from Pardee. They live someplace else and their goal is to build homes
and sell them. It's an asset, and their goal is to negotiate for the highest
price they can get, developed or not. Pardee has objectified the land to
serve their purpose of maximizing their investment. Preservation is not
on their agenda.
The conservationists have offered to "do the right
thing" and try to buy the land. Try is the operative word. A self-described
"willing seller," Pardee bought the land at $2 million and presumably
have been paying property taxes. Pardee's appraisers have set the current
value at $30 million and are asking for an additional $14 million. Pardee
is willing, all right. Willing to be bought out at top-build-out dollar,
based on (assumed) favorable re-zoning, on their values and their vision.
After all, they're the owners, and they should have the say on what goes
on their property. As far as they are concerned, they have bent over backwards
to be accommodating. As Pardee senior executive Mike Madigan told the City
Council, "I am negotiating further on this plan only under extreme
Assessing the possibilities
If District 1 Council member Harry Mathis has his way, there will be some
serious rewriting of the script before the curtain (or scraper blade) falls
on 8A. He's trying to hold the higher (or at least some middle) ground.
In an effort to support community members' desire to
keep it as open space, Mathis has championed the establishment of an assessment
district. This would allow area property owners to fund the purchase of
Pardee land by paying a fixed fee (up to $100) a year for 30 years. But
rather than the $6 to $12 million evaluation that some conservationists
had dreamed about, the proposed assessment district has placed a "maximum"
possible cost to the City of $21 million for the acquisition.
Ballots were mailed out to landowners, seeking approval
for the district. Votes are weighted in proportion to the size of the parcel
represented. With 2,000 ballots returned out of a total of 8,000, the measure
is running behind.
Values: family vs. property
This is a classic struggle between values and rights. Pardee has the right
to fight to maximize the economic value of the land. The community has the
right to fight for what it believes in. The city has the legal authority
to act in the matter. But with fiscal times being what they are, and politics
being what they are, the scrub lovers are the definite underdogs.
The sad irony is that investing in conservation now
would lead to increased equity value for all property holders later. It
is a foregone conclusion that the property values in this area will continue
to rise. If the measure ultimately fails, I just know that 20 years from
now they will be shaking their heads and saying, "Gee, you know, we
had a chance to buy that a while back it would have been better to have
left it open."
The real issue is: who sets and maintains the values
for the neighborhood? How much do we really believe in protecting something
unique? Do we believe in community planning and support it when it counts?
How much can we leave things like this to future generations? Only as much
as we can afford at premium market prices? On that basis alone, we will
steadily confine and diminish our region's quality of life, as always, under
the hubris of progress. We need only look 100 miles north for a case study.
If Pardee is allowed to develop this land, the current
neighborhood will be destroyed. Seeing the individuals involved and their
connection and love of this land, it will take a miracle to keep it from
going to court. The 8A Precise Plan including Pardee's "Compromise
Plan" for development comes before the City Council on October 31.
Pardee has been turned down before, and this is their latest attempt to
convince the Council to side with one neighbor over another, rather than
working something out between themselves.
If you care, be there
What does this have to do with the rest of San Diego?
The City Council has the power to approve or disapprove
the zoning upgrade request. In the Environmental Impact Report, city staff
have developed 4 development alternatives that could result in as many as
800 multi-family units, while the existing zoning provides for only one
house per ten acres. The City Attorney has stated that the Council is not
obliged to upzone the property and that if Pardee should sue, they would
not prevail in court. So what will the Council do?
Believe it or not, it probably depends a lot on people
like you. Attend the hearings and express your opinion:
October 3, 10am
October 17, 10am
San Diego City Council
202 C Streeet, San Diego
Or, call your City Councilmember. The city government information line is:
You can send donations to the Carmel Mountain Conservancy
at P.O. Box 910424, San Diego, CA 92191. They can be reached at 682-7026.
This is it folks. This is the time to stand up to save
Carmel Mountain. You can't really "save the earth," but you can
protect pieces of it. The only thing that is going to make a difference
now is a showing from the people of San Diego. By attending these hearings
en masse, we can tell the City Council that it is worth taking a firm stand
for more conservation in 8A than is provided for in Pardee's Compromise
Without people power, the next invitation will be to
join Ann, Diana, Lillian, Bunny and others in front of the bulldozers.
Carolyn Chase is Chairperson of the City Waste Management Advisory
Board, a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon Citizens Advisory Council,
and recipient of the Mayor's 1994 "Spirit of San Diego" award
for the environment.