An Orange County developer who led the effort to delay San Diego’s general plan update until his own project could be approved is one step away from his goal.
On October 23, the San Diego Planning Commission voted 5–2 in support of the Merriam Mountains project, a 2700-residential-unit, master-planned community proposed along Interstate 15, north of Escondido.
The 2327-acre project is owned by 21 individual property owners, whose land has been optioned for purchase by Stonegate Development Corporation of Laguna Hills. Stonegate’s president, Gordon Youde, has promoted the project.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has final say over Merriam Mountains, and the board is scheduled to discuss and possibly approve the project at its December 9, 2009 meeting.
The board also has the final say on when and how the county’s land-use plan will be updated and implemented. Labeled General Plan 2020 and in development since the fall of 1998, the land-use plan provides a blueprint for all future development in San Diego County.
The county currently operates under a plan approved in 1979, when the county’s population was less than 2 million people. The population is now over 3 million, and it’s expected to reach 4 million by 2030.
Critics have charged a direct correlation between the delays in approving General Plan 2020 and the length of time it has taken Merriam Mountains to be approved.
“Merriam Mountains should not be done,” says former California state senator Jim Mills. “The supervisors have not been sincere in the GP-2020 process. These delays are not by chance. Their campaigns are funded by developer money, and they want as many development projects as possible approved before any changes to the current general plan are in place.”
Both General Plan 2020 and the Merriam Mountains development were conceptualized in the late 1990s. In the fall of 1998, an advisory Steering Committee, created by the board of supervisors and made up of the chairs of the county’s 18 community planning groups, began the process of configuring the new general plan.
Where would future housing be located? How would traffic congestion be addressed? Where would San Diego’s jobs of the future be built? These decisions are all ultimately the domain of the general plan — and more to the point, the decision of the five members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
Soon after GP-2020’s process started, plans to develop Merriam Mountains into a residential and commercial community began to form. The original conceptual plan featured 435 residential lots within five villages on 1962 acres of land. Stonegate pushed to have the entire development area given its own special classification. The developers wanted a specific planning amendment for their project that would allow them to create their own zoning and density standards.
In 2002, a series of memos was uncovered during a lawsuit deposition by former San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre (on an unrelated matter regarding political redistricting, while Aguirre was in private practice). The memos were written between June 2000 and April 2001. They revealed that Gordon Youde, president of Stonegate Development Corporation, had worked to delay GP-2020, attempting to gain approval for Merriam Mountains before the land-use-plan update could be enacted.
“At this point in time, Stonegate Development is the premier entity capable of countering Plan 2020 and getting projects approved prior to enactment of Plan 2020,” wrote Youde on November 14, 2000, to Merriam Mountains Property Owners, “Interested Parties,” and Escondido development consultant David R. Shibley.
Shibley was working with property owners and developers involved in the GP-2020 process through a political organization called Save Our Land Values (SOLV). After viewing an early draft of GP-2020, Youde explained his opposition to the plan in a memo to Shibley.
“We were aghast!” wrote Youde on June 14, 2000. “The map designates the entire Merriam Mountains as one dwelling unit for 40 acres! These designations eliminate any development potential.”
In that June 14, 2000 memo, Youde told Shibley that he’d met with then–San Diego Department of Planning and Land Use director Gary Pryor on June 5, 2000, and was advised that Stonegate would need a general plan amendment to get the project approved.
“Mr. Prior [sic] suggested we needed to review the Plan 2020 designation for Merriam Mountains, as the Planning Department would be hard pressed to recommend a plan for approval by the Board of Supervisors that is not consistent with what they are proposing in Plan 2020,” wrote Youde.
In a November 14, 2000 memo, Youde told Shibley that Stonegate had contacted the individual supervisors, formally requesting that the project’s zoning be changed from one dwelling unit per 40 acres to a generalized, specific planning area designation. That designation “gives us the planning flexibility to create a master planned community and set our own lot sizes and use designations,” wrote Youde.
According to county spokesperson Gig Conaughton, a specific plan “allows for a more specific development program than identified under existing general plan and zoning designations. And although it does allow you to designate your own density, density is still reviewed for appropriateness under the California Environmental Quality Act. Specific Plans are common in the county for large projects.”
Stonegate’s efforts involved direct contact with the individual supervisors and their staffs. In the June 14, 2000 memo, Youde described a meeting with Chris Brown, then Supervisor Bill Horn’s deputy for land-use matters.
“The most frightening thing he [Brown] said is that some kind of compromise would be worked out on the Merriam Mountains land use designation,” wrote Youde. “What kind of compromise would work for us? One unit per twenty acres? No. One unit per ten acres? No. One unit for five acres? No.”
In October 2000, at a meeting of the Alpine Community Planning Group, Pryor said developers and property owners would be smart to get their projects completed and built before General Plan 2020 was set in place.
“A plan for an undeveloped piece of property is subject to new restrictions under GP-2020. But if there are sticks in the ground — if a vested project has been established, or a building raised on a property — then those structures will not be subject to GP-2020.”
Under the original General Plan 2020 maps — known as the Alternative III maps and drawn by the planning group leaders on the Steering Committee — future land-use and zoning decisions would have been made using population density. Rules regarding future development would have been stricter and less open to the individual discretion of the supervisors.
However, on January 10, 2001, the board of supervisors rejected Alternative III. The board then created a new advisory body, titled the Interest Group Committee. This was a selected group of developer and environmental leaders who met monthly to craft new zoning maps and land-use goals for the region.
But in the nine years since the Interest Group Committee was created, no plan has been brought to the supervisors for approval. This has further fueled critics’ charges that no plan will be in place until major projects, including Merriam Mountains, are approved.
“The Board has been dragging its feet on General Plan 2020 so projects could get approved and into the pipeline,” noted former San Diego Planning Commissioner David Kreitzer. “[Supervisor Ron] Roberts said the original zoning proposed under the Alternative III maps was unacceptable. They were afraid of lawsuits by property rights groups.”
Youde bluntly told Shibley and the property owners on November 14, 2000, of the estimated costs involved in putting pressure on the supervisors and county staff.
“Stonegate is presently paying the political consultants and land use attorney fees to protect you from the effects of Plan 2020. In addition to processing a project under the existing General Plan, Stonegate has submitted a letter on behalf of each of you requesting suitable density in the event Plan 2020 is successful,” wrote Youde, who placed the costs of their efforts at close to $200,000 at that time.
After Stonegate’s efforts proved successful, Youde dispatched another memo.
“PLAN 2020 DERAILED!!” begins the February 28, 2001 memo. “Due to the concerted effort of David Shibley of the SOLV [Save Our Land Values] GROUP and hundreds of angry landowners, the Board of Supervisors squelched Alternative III of the General Plan 2020 update,” wrote Youde. “It is well known at the Planning Department that it was our initial submittal to Planning that unearthed Plan 2020 and we sounded the alarm that led to the organization to oppose Plan 2020…[now] we are able to sell [our] plan directly to the Supervisors on a one-to-one basis and insure political support.…”
Youde felt confident Stonegate’s efforts were beginning to show results. Two months before the board of supervisors eliminated the Alternative III maps and formed the Interest Group Committee, Youde applauded Save Our Land Values for its work. He even asked the property owners to send money to Save Our Land Values.
Save Our Land Values was not the only entity Youde suggested the developers assist in their attempt to delay the General Plan 2020 process. The supervisors themselves were also described as beneficiaries of Stonegate’s political efforts, specifically North County supervisor Bill Horn, who represents the area that includes Merriam Mountains.
“Support Bill Horn! Without Supervisor Bill Horn and his strong advocacy of property rights, we would have no chance at all. Mr. Horn has announced his intention to run for re-election to the Board of Supervisors and expects a challenge from the environmentalist lobby. We are including a campaign contribution envelope for your use. We are supporting Mr. Horn to the maximum extent permitted under the law,” wrote Youde in his February 28, 2001 memo.
Three months later on June 1, 2001, Youde wrote to the property owners that Stonegate had organized “two tables of supporters” at Horn’s May 22 reelection campaign fund-raiser.
“The fundraiser was very successful and raised over $200,000,” said Youde. “That gives Supervisor Horn a substantial war chest and dissuades challengers from attempting to unseat him.”
In the aftermath of the defeat of the Alternative III maps, Save Our Land Values earned a seat at the table of the Interest Group Committee. Shibley has actively participated in the committee’s meetings since then.
Former San Diego Sierra Club president Eric Bowlby served on the Interest Group Committee for four years. Bowlby said the central problem with the makeup of the committee was that development and real estate consultants serving on the committee were also representing projects seeking approval.
“The conflict of interest was acute, and there was no denial of the conflict of interest,” says Bowlby. “There were consultants working on their own specific projects and shaping the new maps to accommodate those projects.”
The Merriam Mountains development project still requires formal approval by the board of supervisors. But as early as August 2001, Youde felt confident the board would support it.
Youde wrote to Shibley on August 23, 2001, “In this process we expect to be turned down at all local levels and ultimately approved by the Board of Supervisors.”