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When dump trucks started rattling in and out of a lush 25-acre expanse of open space on a La Jolla hillside a few weeks ago, neighbors started sounding alarms.

They thought the land owned by former San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David Copley’s company, The Copley Press Inc., was being primed for development. The trucks were dumping dirt on a property line separating the Copley Press-owned open space from Copley’s adjacent estate, Foxhill.

The vacant property is up for sale (asking price: $22 million), and its uncertain future has left neighbors wondering whether the dissolution of so many other Copley mainstays — his publishing company, his La Jolla library and offices — might also claim one of La Jolla’s last natural places, and of course, those scenic ocean views it affords their nearby houses.

But the open space isn’t being developed. At least not yet.

The mounds of dirt, according to the city’s Development Services Department, are from a basement excavation of Copley’s Foxhill mansion and aren’t the first signs of development on the 25 undeveloped acres.

Copley has filed applications with the city of San Diego that would allow him to build a garage and an eight-foot wall around the smaller Foxhill property once owned by his late mother, Helen. He also wants to shift the property lines, to increase Foxhill by three acres, shrinking the open space the same amount. He also has plans for an exercise studio.

Ethna Piazza and other residents said realtors who sold them their homes told them the land would always be green space. Helen Copley, the former publishing magnate who bequeathed the land to her son when she died, had said so. Or so they thought.

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“We’re concerned about the loss of green space,” said Piazza, whose back deck looks out over the open space. “It’s one of the few natural spots left in La Jolla. We’re concerned about the loss of views.”

Around the time of Helen Copley’s 2004 death, a fence went up around the undeveloped land where local residents once hiked. Trees were taken out, and last year, just months after The Copley Press sold the Union-Tribune to a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm, Copley put the massive property on the market for $22 million. (The private equity firm didn’t buy the property as many residents thought.)

The land is zoned for residential development, and in a listing was advertised as being capable of supporting a subdivision with low-density development.

But whether that will happen isn’t known. Neither Copley nor the property’s listing agent could be reached. Any development, though, would have a lengthy permitting process, said PJ FitzGerald, a project manager in the city’s Development Services Department, because the land sits in the coastal zone. That means the California Coastal Commission would have to grant a permit.

Full disclosure: Piazza is a former voiceofsandiego.org board member.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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