Developers are trying to build hundreds of homes on a vast 1,098 acres just north of the San Diego Safari Zoo Park – something that a previous developer tried before on the same property and failed. The new proposal faces many of the same challenges that stopped its predecessor.

Concordia Communities LLC is proposing a 550-luxury home development, called Safari Highlands Ranch, on 350 acres of the empty, rugged property north of the safari park, northeast of the Rancho Vistamonte Community and east of Rancho San Pasqual.

The property is currently part of the unincorporated county, where county law only allows 27 homes. So the developer is trying to persuade the Escondido City Council to annex the land. That would allow 550 homes and provide sewer, water and fire infrastructure that the county would not.

In 2003, the Escondido planning commission denied a different developer’s plan to build 403 homes, a 250-room resort hotel and an 18-hole golf course on the very same land. The developer pulled his proposal and sold the property.

In order to go through the annexation, both the Escondido City Council and an organization called the Local Agency Formation Commission need to approve the change – a process that could take years.

Last April, the Council voted to allow Concordia to begin the annexation process.

“The vote on this issue is just another step in what appears to be a drip, drip, drip city approach to approving the project,” said Neil Greenwood, who lives near the property, at the April hearing.

Greenwood is one of many residents who oppose the proposal. In a report, Escondido planning staff said they’ve received lots of phone calls from neighbors concerned about the project.

The plan to enlarge Escondido was something both the developer and the city intended since Concordia bought the property – that’s why Escondido’s planning documents included the property, zoning for more homes to be built there. The developer says that the annexation even came up during public hearings when the county was doing its own update of planning documents, re-zoning properties in the unincorporated county, and was something the county anticipated.

All cities in the county have something called a “sphere of influence,” a sort of extension of their city limits, which they can zone for potential annexation one day. Often property in the spheres is unincorporated county land. The land where Safari Highlands Ranch would be located is within Escondido’s sphere of influence.

County planning staff said that Escondido is currently in annexing more property than other cities in the county.

Neighbors aren’t the only ones expressing concerns over the project. Environmental groups like Endangered Habitats League, and even public agencies like the city of San Diego and the county wrote letters to Escondido, listing worries that range from traffic to water to fire safety and emergency access to concerns over the environment.

In 2003, the Escondido planning commission recommended that the City Council reject Valley View Estates, a previous project proposed on the same plot of land. The commissioners said the developer couldn’t possibly mitigate several environmental and safety impacts of the project.

Safari Highlands Ranch faces many of the same issues today.

Don Underwood, president of Concordia, says the two projects are different.

“Sixty percent of site was proposed to be developed in the previous plan versus approximately 30% in the current plan,” Underwood wrote in an e-mail. “We are working closely with all the government agencies involved in order to achieve a harmonious balance between conservation and production of much needed housing inventory which is currently one of the lowest in the nation.”

One of the major issues is fire. The area highly prone to wildfires and currently has a long response time – 11 minutes from the nearest Escondido fire department, said John Helmer, a planner processing the project for Escondido.

“Fire is a huge issue in this area and we strongly believe [Safari Highlands Ranch] will make this region more fire safe,” said Underwood. “[Safari Highlands Ranch] has proposed to provide a new, three-bay fire station in a neighborhood that is woefully underserved in terms of response time.”

Concordia has proposed a fire station as part of the project, but specifics like how it will be funded and staffed – which have been issues for other development projects in rural North County, like Lilac Hills Ranch – haven’t been worked out yet.

Another issue is emergency access. Developments of this size usually need more than one way for emergency services to reach their residents.

The road Concordia wants to use as its secondary emergency access route, Zoo Road, concerns some public agencies, especially the city of San Diego, which oversees the land around the Safari Zoo Park. Zoo Road is currently used mainly by Safari Zoo Park employees. Concordia says that current residents already use the road as an emergency access route, but city of San Diego staff say the developer doesn’t have the rights to use the road for emergency access for this development.

San Diego County’s major concern with the project is its potentially negative effect on environmental conservation.

Much of the property is part of the County’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan – land that the county preserved to protect endangered species. The land houses species like coastal sage scrub and the California gnatcatcher.

Escondido doesn’t have a habitat conservation plan, so county planning staff is concerned that in transferring the land, these sensitive species might be affected.

A transfer like this has been done before. In 2004, a neighboring community called Rancho Vistamonte – where some of the neighbors who oppose Safari Highlands Ranch live – went through a similar annexation. The developer of that project entered into an agreement with the county, Escondido and state and federal wildlife agencies, ensuring it would continue protecting the species.

Underwood said Concordia aims to follow Rancho Vistamonte’s precedent in this respect.

County planning staff said they are waiting for environmental studies to be done before deciding whether to transfer the protected habitat to Escondido and the developer.

The Escondido City Council voted last Wednesday to hire a firm to start the project’s environmental impact report, which would need to be finished before LAFCO votes on annexation. It’s expected to be finished and circulated for public review later this year.

These potential obstacles aren’t deterring the developer, though.

“We intend to see this through to a successful completion even if we encounter temporary setbacks along the way,” said Underwood.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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