Fifty miles east of downtown San Diego, 12 miles south of Interstate 8, Buckman Springs Road, approaching from the north, ends at State Route 94 as it turns east after a mile-long northward jog from Campo. This intersection is the center point of the unincorporated town of Cameron Corners which, at only 27 acres and less than 100 residents, strains the definition of the word "town." That may change, if development plans filed with the county come to fruition.
In the late afternoon, during an early-March heat wave, Michael Thometz, an anti-development activist who lives on a nearby ranch, stands in the parking lot of the gas station at the corner of Buckman Springs and Highway 94. "This is Cameron Corners," he says. "All we've got here is a convenience store, a combination barber shop-beauty parlor, a little florist, a tiny thrift store, a video store, a burger stand, and a chiropractor who's here a couple of days a week. We had a bank for a while, but they just couldn't make a go of it. So we have an ATM now." He points to the gas station's sign, which advertises 87-octane at $2.39, 89 at $2.49, and 91 for $2.59 per gallon. "And we've got the highest gas prices in the county."
Ten or so single-story houses across Highway 94 from the gas station are the only homes within the town of Cameron Corners. But the owners of the Star Ranch, which borders the town on the south and east, are considering building a cluster of new dwellings around the town and possibly some retail space to create a country village around Cameron Corners. As many as 500 new units have been discussed.
Thometz, a heavily built man, stands over six feet tall. His face, bronzed from years in the high desert sun, contrasts with his thick white hair, which rustles in the constant breeze. "Star Ranch has been owned by Barry De Vorzan who lives in Montecito, which is the upscale part of Santa Barbara," Thometz says. "He has owned the property for 32 years, and it is for sale right now. About four years ago, the Star Ranch was on the market for $8 million. Now it's on the market for $10 million. For that, you get 2150 acres and quite a few cattle, assuming the cattle go with it, plus you get 2800 acres of Bureau of Land Management grazing leases. So [De Vorzan] has owned it for all of these years. He used to come down occasionally. Well, about a year ago, all of a sudden he appears out of the woodwork at a planning group meeting and says, 'Tell me how I can develop it.' He didn't come with any plan or anything. It was, 'I don't want to lose my value here; how can I develop it?' He didn't come into the community and say, 'By God, this is what the hell I am going to do and here it is; you take it or leave it.' I give him that."
More than a year before attending the planning-group meeting, De Vorzan had retained Doug Paul of the downtown San Diego engineering firm Project Design Consultants to create and implement a development plan for the ranch. "Then, around a year ago," Thometz says, "they came back to the planning group and said, 'We have 2150 acres...so we deserve 500 houses on this property.' "
The plan, according to Thometz, called for clustering the homes around a new commercial center to be built on the portion of the Ranch bordering Cameron Corners to the south. The development would be served by ground water pumped from beneath the Campo Creek flood plain, and sewage would be handled by the county-run Rancho Del Campo waste water treatment facility a mile or so to the south.
Doug Paul, the consultant in charge of the project, says the 500 homes figure is not a reflection of any written plans he or De Vorzan has. "That is what we thought the land would support from a water standpoint," he explains. "We still believe that is about what the water sources would support. We have existing wells on the ranch that are currently being agriculturally used. We have looked at rainfall recharge and we have engaged hydrology specialists to tell us what a sustainable effort would be, and that is what we have concluded. Now whether we actually propose that number or whether we propose something different than that would be subject to a lot of studies that have yet to be done."
Still, Paul acknowledges that clustering development around Cameron Corners is the focus of the development proposal they filed with the county last Summer. The filing does not mean the project will necessarily happen. It was done to meet a county-imposed deadline of August 6, 2003, for filing projects to be considered under the current county general plan as opposed to the general plan 2020, which the county has been developing for the past six years.
"I think that we are in the same camp as the county staff," Paul says, "in that we believe a cluster of resources and development in a reasonable size and in a community that has good attributes and amenities for the community is a more appropriate way to use land than to go out and just have a whole bunch of 10-acre ranchettes sprawled around the back country. So we favor a community that would have an actual location in a specific area at Cameron Corners."
Asked if Julian's town center is an example of what he envisions for Cameron Corners, Paul responds, "Julian is a little bigger than what we would have in mind. Maybe Rancho Santa Fe village -- some low one-story commercial and central buildings with some cottages or other kinds of residential cluster in the immediate area and then with increasingly larger parcels and less dense residential outward from there. Then you would have some amount of walk-ability or bike-ability or horseback ride-ability within maybe a mile or so of the bulls eye. And then basically the rest of the land further out would be 40-acre parcel sizes and larger. There would be some sense of arrival at some little local village. There would be a possibility for getting your hair cut at some place and having a soda shop. And you can't put the town where the town is now because that is all parceled out to a whole bunch of different sub-owners, so you would have to do a redevelopment acquisition and actually buy back all of those parcels if you wanted to get enough critical mass to create the kind of village you need to create. So it needs to be on a single piece of land, and that is why Star Ranch is the big player out there. And they have the water to support a community of a moderate to small size.
"After five months or so," Thometz continues, "[the Star Ranch proposal] comes to the planning group. There are nine members of the planning group; it takes five, a majority, to report out a recommendation to the county. But two of the members on the planning group had to recuse themselves [because their plots border Star Ranch]. They ended up with four votes in favor and the three votes against."
After the Star Ranch plan failed in the planning group, a Cameron Corners committee was formed by the group to continue the discussion on the idea. "This committee," Thometz says, "is supposed to be planning the future there. The rural lands initiative [Proposition A] would have killed these people dead. Because the only thing that was excluded, out in our area, were things like country towns. And Cameron Corners was 27 acres of commercial area in a country town. But everything around it is land-use Designation 18, which is multiple rural use, and that was the main target of Proposition A. But, unfortunately, Prop A didn't pass. So now we have our committee meetings, and it has become a very serious point of contention in the community. I mean, the committee is now at 45 members."
Both Thometz and Paul sit on the committee. "Out of the 45 members," Thometz says, "there are about five or six that are big-time growth, and there are about seven or eight that are some growth, and there are about 25 which are no growth."
A second committee under the aegis of the planning group is developing a community character statement which, should it be approved by the planning group and filed with the county, would be the official word on how the local community envisions its future. Both Thometz and Paul sit on that committee as well. "I don't think there has been a whole lot of vision," Paul says of both committees, "as to what the community character could be. The folks who are currently serving on committee are more interested in describing what they think the community character is today."
When asked what he would like to see done on the Star Ranch, Thometz fires back, "Nothing. I'm serious. Look, there is a certain visual landscape that is what you see in this community. That shouldn't change. Now, there are some things I am not against them building. For example, they could build some homes that are as far away from 94 as possible, right at the bottom of the hills in there, away from the road. They could put some houses over on the other side of the hill, where nobody would see them, west of 94. So they could do that, but I want to leave all the landscape open. I don't want to see any houses."
"I don't think," Paul responds, "that Star Ranch has any intent to upset or dislodge or break away from the traditional Campo qualities -- quiet, dark skies and all those things. But the community needs to recognize that the backcountry has an obligation to provide a certain amount of the resident population housing that is in a crisis throughout the entire county. There is an ability [on Star Ranch] to produce housing of reasonable cost and housing of appropriate economic means for the community. That is what we are trying to do."
But, at least for a few years, nothing is what Thometz and others who would see Campo unchanged are going to get on the Star Ranch. "It would take a couple of years," Paul explains, "just to get a plan even into the planning process to the point where there is environmental review and scrutiny by the different agencies that have jurisdiction out there. It would take at least a year and a half of environmental clearances alone. And the environmental documents don't get drawn up until you have a way of gauging a plan and then measuring it against it. There hasn't been anything close to that. And it is going to take a very substantial budget of dollars to engage the professional services necessary to make it happen. Quite frankly, I don't think the developers of Star Ranch are ready to make those kind of dollar commitments."