The north city community of Pacific Highlands Ranch is in a bit of a pickle.

Residents there want parks, libraries and other facilities, like a shopping center — the amenities that make a neighborhood a neighborhood.

But there’s a problem: the city of San Diego can only build those amenities once the neighborhood’s population reaches a certain size. And the neighborhood’s population can’t reach that size because enough homes aren’t allowed to be built yet.

When voters gave the green light for construction of Pacific Highlands Ranch more than a decade ago, they limited its construction to 1,900 homes until ramps connecting two nearby freeways — Interstate 5 and State Route 56 — were completed. Surrounding communities were afraid that without those ramps, traffic from new residents would overwhelm their streets.

But there’s another problem: Pacific Highlands Ranch is fast approaching 1,900 homes, and those freeway ramps aren’t scheduled to be completed for another 10 years, meaning growth will soon stop.

Oh, and one more problem: Residents of nearby Torrey Pines have said when it comes time to build those ramps, they’ll oppose them. They think the sweeping flyover design would be an eyesore, and the necessary widening could damage their neighborhood.

So there sits Manjeet Ranu, a Pacific Highlands Ranch resident who moved into the neighborhood in 2006, thinking he’d see the day when he could walk his elementary-aged daughters to check children’s books out of the neighborhood library. On the current timeline, that looks unlikely.

“They’ll be in college before that happens,” said Ranu, who is vice chairman of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, which covers Pacific Highlands Ranch.

So what are frustrated residents of Pacific Highlands Ranch to do? They bought homes there long before the community was complete, with the understanding that its growth would trigger construction of the public facilities they needed.

But things have not gone as planned, so this November, residents are taking their frustrations back to the ballot box.

If citywide voters approve Proposition C on November’s ballot, the restriction tying the construction of new homes to the completion of the freeway ramps would be eliminated, in turn allowing developers to keep building, the neighborhood to keep growing, and the city to build those amenities.

Which brings us to one final problem: In the past, the city has said it couldn’t build those facilities on time anyway, because there was no money available to operate them.

But Prop. C’s proponents say right now, that is a secondary concern. They’ll lobby the City Council to fund park and library operations later. First, they say, they have to free the community to keep growing so it can reach the population levels required to build the amenities.

The community’s dilemma is a case study in planning gone wrong. It originated in the assumptions local residents made more than a decade ago about how future growth would affect their communities, and the safeguards they put in place to protect them against growth’s negative impacts.

In this case, it was traffic.

In 1998, city voters approved Proposition M, which allowed development to begin in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Members of the planning board for neighboring Carmel Valley were afraid the population growth would flood their streets with traffic, especially because State Route 56, which cuts across Carmel Valley and Pacific Highlands Ranch, was not yet complete.

They insisted that Prop. M include a restriction limiting the growth of Pacific Highlands Ranch until the freeway was complete and it was fully connected to Interstate 5 to the west. They spoke too soon.

“It became apparent that Carmel Valley had made a mistake,” said Scott Tillson, a member of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board. “In a nutshell, it was a well-intended effort, but it resulted in unperceived consequences.”

Like forcing Pacific Highlands Ranch residents to use public facilities and shopping centers in Carmel Valley, a problem residents say shows no signs of letting up until the neighborhood gets its own amenities.

And as it turns out, Pacific Highlands Ranch residents are generating far less traffic than was expected. When those freeway ramps are built, they’ll end up serving more Carmel Valley residents than Pacific Highlands Ranch residents, according to Caltrans.

That fact, combined with the possibility that the freeway ramps are at least 10 years away, Prop. C’s proponents now say, made it clear they had to remove the building restrictions tied to the construction of the freeway ramps. The surrounding communities support the measure because adding amenities in Pacific Highlands Ranch would mean less pressure on their own.

If approved, the ballot measure would replace the freeway requirement with a requirement that the city reassess Pacific Highlands Ranch’s community plan — its blueprint for growth — and create a new plan for building the community’s public facilities based on the rate of population and housing growth.

It could also help avoid a future showdown between Pacific Highlands Ranch and nearby Torrey Pines, the community surrounding the intersection of State Route 56 and Interstate 5. The Torrey Pines Community Planning Board has said it will oppose the construction of those ramps as they’re currently proposed, because they’ll be eyesores and may require the city to take private property to construct them.

The measure would also prohibit the city from issuing new building permits in Pacific Highlands Ranch if public facilities like parks and the library aren’t built on schedule. That condition, Ranu said, is intended to provide “teeth” to the ballot measure, tying future growth to the construction of amenities needed to support it.

“We recognized that simply building homes without the requisite public facilities has its own problems,” Tillson said. “We don’t want that to happen.”

The ballot measure is sponsored by City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who represents Carmel Valley. Through her office, she offered to speak about the initiative only in an in-depth, in-person interview, but wouldn’t meet a reporter’s deadline by commenting over the phone.

Though the proposition has not encountered any organized opposition, proponents now face a campaign to convince citywide voters. Pacific Highlands Ranch’s main developer, Pardee Homes, has promised to help finance the campaign.

Tillson said proponents did not expect much controversy over the measure, since it is mostly intended as a fix to the 1998 proposition.

“It’s a great example of why to avoid getting down into a very detailed level of planning at the ballot box,” said Ranu, who has a background in city planning. “Because communities are dynamic and conditions change and things happen that you don’t expect.”

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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