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Monday July 2, 2007 | It’s not uncommon for members of the Torrey Hills Planning Board to skip their monthly meeting unannounced. Twenty minutes after they’re supposed to begin, some meetings are canceled for lack of a quorum.

An audience consisting of community members is a rare event.

But on a recent Tuesday evening, residents at a planning group meeting packed a room in the Carmel Valley library and overflowed out onto the patio.

Something drew a few dozen engineers, homemakers, sales executives, teachers and parents away from their daily lives, to sit in stiff plastic chairs inside a warm, brimming room. The flyers, posted days earlier, had read:

“NOTICE TO NEIGHBORS: The proposed development for the vacant lots on Ocean Air and Mariposa is MASSIVE. THIS MEANS MORE FOUR-STORY BUILDINGS — AND MORE NEIGHBORHOOD TRAFFIC … WE DO NOT NEED MORE TRAFFIC NEXT TO OUR HOMES AND ELEMENTARY SCHOOL.”

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Torrey Hills is a mixed industrial/residential outpost east of Interstate 5, south of State Route 56 and otherwise bordered mostly by Los Peñasquitos canyon. Until fairly recently, it was just another 784 acres of chaparral-covered San Diego mesa overlooking the I-5/I-805 merge.

Now it is another cul-de-sac- and office park-covered San Diego mesa. But before the great gates of growth are closed forever, Thomas Blake, of a local development firm called Coast Income Properties, wants to build 484 units of condos and townhouses and 4,000 square feet of commercial space on one of the neighborhood’s last vacant lots.

He’s looking to put up roughly 890,000 total square feet — a number for which many in the community spared no scorn.

“We have no public benefit from having this monstrosity here,” planning board member Gigi Bainbridge complained to the crowd. “We have said over and over again that the density needs to be reduced. It’s way too high.”

“This is so far over on the numbers that it seems silly that it’s even up for discussion,” one man said from a back corner. “At what point did they think we were just going to say, ‘Yeah, come in here and crap on our neighborhood?’”

In the area where Blake is proposing to build, the city-approved community plan sets the maximum allowable building density at 570,000 square feet. There are currently office buildings and hotels (one of them still under construction) totaling about 500,000 square feet. That leaves roughly 70,000 square feet of development still up for grabs.

Blake is proposing to build more than12 times that amount — to more than double the density of the entire planning area.

That explains some residents’ fiery passions. Their knee-jerk skepticism, however, might best be explored in a question: How could the community plan be up to its limit for development when there are 10 empty acres in Torrey Hills?

“What the city and the developers did … is they consistently overbuilt on the lots in these planning areas,” planning board member and Torrey Hills Community Coalition President Diana Padgett said, in a view shared by many on her board.

Blake, as another board member sympathetically put it, is “late to the trough” in Torrey Hills. Most of the 784 acres are spoken for. And all that planning and building and growth helped forge a core community of longtime residents, like Padgett, who witnessed the transformation of their neighborhood from bluff-top to business park, and learned.

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First, in 2001, residents coalesced around their opposition to a planned Chevron station that would have placed 12 gas pumps, a car wash and a 24-hour convenience mart in the middle of their neighborhood, precariously close to a 230-kV power substation. Despite City Councilman Scott Peters’ initial endorsement of the plan, the residents — loosely organized as the Torrey Hills Community Coalition — raised enough health concerns that the revised conditions for the station drove Chevron away.

Later, when a developer wanted to put a drive-thru fast food restaurant into the local Vons shopping center, residents got the city to change the zoning to one that prohibited drive-thru restaurants and gas stations. (But while the zoning change killed the fast food possibility, it also made it hard for more desirable businesses to move in. The planning board discovered last year that Taste of Italy, a neighborhood restaurant and martini bar, was accidentally granted a full-booze liquor license because a city map didn’t display the new zoning. So the board members got a huge headache, and the restaurant owners got to worry about giving up a chunk of their brand-new businesses’ revenue.)

The towering moment for Torrey Hills community activism came when the coalition, later reorganized as an official nonprofit, killed the last project Tom Blake proposed for the 10 acres currently under debate.

Residents argued that building a biotech complex less than 1,000 feet from an elementary school wasn’t the best of ideas, since the state Department of Education would probably not approve the school if the biotech had come first. Initially, a city planner agreed. Then, according to planning board members, the decision was mysteriously reversed, and the city decided that the biotech project was in “substantial conformance” with the office uses proposed earlier for the site.

The Torrey Hills Community Coalition sued and won on appeal — but not because biotech labs near a school is such an obviously bad idea. They won because the appeals court decided that when a community plan states a “maximum allowable density,” — like, say, 570,000 square feet in one planning area — the word “maximum” in that case means not to be exceeded.

The victory didn’t just strengthen the community plan and force the abandonment of the biotech development. When Blake returned with a new residential project, he also — for the first time, according to planning board members — came with an open ear.

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In the midst of hearing a colorful, sometimes angry outpouring of residents concerns’ at the packed meeting, Tom Blake stood up and calmly introduced himself. The audience, perhaps embarrassed at the heat of the rhetoric aimed at a tall, grandfatherly man in a plaid shirt and sport coat, giggled.

On one hand, Torrey Hills got more development so far than it probably should have, and letting in even a reduced version of Blake’s project would burst the limits of the community plan.

On the other, even if residents could convince city staff or the council to maintain their plan and kill the project (which is quite unlikely) nobody wants to look at an empty lot forever. And there’s a chance the neighborhood could get a true asset — like money for a YMCA or more parkland — in return for striking a deal.

“I think we’ve been probably naive in the past,” planning board member Rob Mullally said, dreaming of a deal that would bring swimming pools and summer camps to his neighborhood. “We really didn’t extract our pound of flesh in the manner of which we’re going after the Coast Income Properties development. Our eyes have been opened now. It’s open to us to say to Blake what is acceptable.”

Ian S. Port is Assistant Editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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