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Monday, May 5, 2008 | The residents paying attention these days are upset about the only thing left here in Torrey Hills to be truly upset about.

Development.

There aren’t many places left to build, but if the latest additions are any indication, all the scrutiny this comfortable community can muster is still likely to result in some residents becoming supremely irritated by near-permanent impacts to their quality of life.

The community’s victories — hard-fought as they are — always seem to end with a cruel, unexpected twist.

Take this one: Residents of a quiet street that runs along Carmel Mountain Road returned home recently to find that car headlights from the parking lot of a just-finished strip mall shine directly into the private side of their homes, illuminating their families’ living-and-bedroom activities for the entertainment of sushi eaters across the street.

The local planning board thought about this possibility beforehand, and asked the developer to put in plants and a wall to block the light. But the strip mall was mistakenly built eight feet above the grade level set out in the plans — giving diners a view over the privacy walls of the homes across the street — and the parking lot wall was forgotten.

“We have no privacy here,” said resident Yvonne Ravad, who is married to the chairman of the planning board. The view from her kitchen window now includes a parking lot and the blue neon sign of Zip Fusion sushi where deer used to run along a wild hillside.

But the strip mall actually was a desired outcome. Residents fought off a Chevron station proposed for the site (which is quite close to an SDG&E power substation) and ended up with the car lights instead.

That’s the kind of victory the residents of Torrey Hills seem to get. And now there is widespread worry that the community’s biggest win so far — a lawsuit that defeated city approval of a major biotech facility — may turn out Pyrrhic as well.

Residents were thrilled when, after three and a half years of legal battles, an appeals court finally overturned the city’s approval of a biotech complex that was to be built just down the street from an elementary school. So thrilled, in fact, that the community planning board wholeheartedly embraced the developer’s next proposal: To build a condominium project on the site instead.

The project would involve a rezone of the land from industrial to residential, requiring an amendment to the community plan that governs Torrey Hills. The board unanimously supported getting started on the amendment process. The two sides thought they were finally in agreement.

Diana Padgett, a community activist who helped lead the campaign against the biotech facility, even went to the Planning Commission to support the plan amendment required by the project.

“Everybody thought that was a good idea,” Padgett remembers.

But after looking a little more deeply at the project, Padgett and others found it to be far denser then they originally realized. With roughly 44 residential units per acre, the project planned by Coast Income Properties would be by far the densest development anywhere in Torrey Hills. (The densest development now is an apartment complex that’s 29 units per acre.) The proposed level of density isn’t permitted in any of the land-use zones anywhere in the community, so the city would have to use a new zone for the four lots in question.

Upon learning all this, residents balked.

“We bent over backwards to try and make it work,” Padgett said. “We tried to negotiate with them in good faith to put something there that made sense for the community. When finally we realized they were not going to budge on the density, we said we cannot in good conscience move forward with this.”

No one I have spoken with in Torrey Hills is in favor of this project as it is currently proposed. And none of them — even planning board members more sympathetic to Blake than activists like Padgett — know any residents who support it, either. More than 300 recently signed a petition Padgett circulated opposing the project.

Thomas Blake, principal of Coast Income Properties, says the size of the project was clear from the beginning, and the Torrey Hills has simply changed its tune. (He didn’t return my calls seeking comment for this story.)

Why is more density a big deal? Because it means more people — and therefore more traffic. The Torrey Hills area, which is book-ended on the north and south ends by Carmel Valley and Sorrento Valley, respectively, already sits in one of the Merge-land’s nastiest traffic zones.

So as the date for a decision by the city approaches, residents in Torrey Hills are increasingly tense. A couple dozen residents nearly exploded at the planning board’s April meeting, because a majority of board members said they wouldn’t submit comments on the draft plan amendment without seeing the environmental impact report on the project — which hasn’t yet been released.

The residents felt the board should take every opportunity to criticize the proposal. Board members didn’t want to rush it.

“Why would they even ask us to do that? It’s just not appropriate,” asked board member John Dean, who has been on planning boards in Carmel Valley since the 1980s. Dean says he can’t remember a time when the city asked a planning group to evaluate part of a project without all the supporting documents.

That heated, two-hour debate — to comment or not to comment? — brought the ironies of Torrey Hills’ development politics to light.

At the meeting was a former longtime planning board member who lost her seat in an upset election — likely in part because of community anger at the strip mall that lights up local living rooms. But the former board member, Paula Abney, also led the board subcommittee that reviews new development. She knows as much or more about the controversial Coast Income project as anyone else.

When several board members said it didn’t have enough information on the project to comment on the plan amendment, Abney rolled her eyes and recited a list of problematic details.

“The people in this room understand the impacts if this gets built,” Abney said. “We’re going to be socked in with traffic all around.”

Everyone seems to believe that that’s what will happen if Torrey Hills loses this battle. After so many hollow victories, even the activists are sounding cynical about the possibility of forcing a change.

“It’s frustrating and the cards are stacked against us,” Padgett said. “And maybe we’ll pull a win.”

But even if so, what new challenge will that bring for Torrey Hills?

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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