The Values of a Neighborhood

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.

by Carolyn Chase
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of course, leave some open space (their previous plan to overdevelop was rejected by the Planning Commission and was withdrawn before the City Council had a chance to do the same).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 state.
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.

On stage

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 duress."

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:

Public Hearings:
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: 236-5555.
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 Plan.
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.