Escondido neighbors call it sprawl

"Safari Highlands Ranch would be terrible for San Diego's wildlife."

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On rugged land north of San Diego Safari Zoo Park, developers want to build a less exotic version of the park; a rich habitat for upper-income humans. The vision statement for Safari Highlands Ranch describes “a luxury sustainable residential development clustered within an extensive resource open space preserve.”

Neighbors call it sprawl. Environmental groups say it will disrupt conservation planning. Now, the draft environmental impact report for Concordia’s project in rural Escondido, expected in March, has been delayed again, leaving opponents on hold until late April or mid-June.

"Safari Highlands Ranch would be terrible for San Diego's wildlife," says Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League, who is among those waiting for the report. Prime habitat would be chopped into pieces, he says, and native species "exposed to all the hazards of adjacent development."

At stake for the 1098-acre parcel are hundreds of acres that fall under the county’s Multiple Species Conservation Program. For whatever is harmed, officials must decide if the developer can adequately mitigate the loss.

The site is home to sensitive species like the threatened coastal California gnatcatcher, a songbird fast losing ground in the county, along with the native coastal sage scrub it inhabits. The building industry has found the species such a deterrent, they've sought to have it delisted.

County planning staff are also waiting for the report, to decide if protected habitat in the unincorporated area should be transferred to the city of Escondido and the developer. Under the county’s General Plan, the rural plat allows for only 27 single-family homes. The plan's guiding theme was "towns and greenbelts," Silver says.

Concordia wants to build 550 homes. So, the developer is seeking to splice 350 acres from the county, expanding Escondido's city limits to accommodate the project. But the Escondido City Council and the Local Agency Formation Commission must first approve the annexation — and LAFCO can’t vote on the issue until the environmental report is finished. Previous attempts by other builders to develop the site were rejected by the Escondido Planning Commission for environmental and fire concerns.

Concordia defends their design as one that would protect a large sweep of land with open space and a resource management plan that includes restrictions on lighting and noise, pre-construction surveys for select species, and more. "Up to 70 percent of the site is conserved open space in perpetuity," their website states.

But if the land is annexed out of the county and into the City of Escondido, it will no longer be subject to active conservation management and oversight by the county, says NeySa Ely, CEO of San Pasqual Valley Preservation Alliance. And that "could undermine decades of conservation planning and protection."

While the county's Multiple Species Conservation Program aims to save habitat as well as enable development, critics say this is the wrong place. It would leapfrog more urban sprawl into the backcountry, threatening unique lands like Rancho Guejito.

It's also the wrong time, they say. The entire site is within the county's Pre-Approved Mitigation Areas for both approved and proposed conservation plans. The southern half of the site is within the program's approved zone, but the North County Plan, which would extend the program into the northwestern areas of the county, is still in the works.

According to a project report, the northern and southern planning areas will undergo separate impact assessments. After revegetation of about 69 percent of the site, the development "will not preclude or prevent the preparation of the subregional NCCP" for the area "since the Pre-Approved Mitigation Areas are larger than the ultimate conservation acreage goals."

And the open space on-site is contiguous with off-site approved mitigation areas, the report says. The two primary wildlife movement routes through the property are retained in open space.

But the project "would permanently impact habitats and vegetation communities over about 31 percent" of the site, plus some off-site improvement areas for the main access road and two emergency access roads. It would "reduce the relatively large area of native vegetation that includes the project site, and increase habitat fragmentation" for sensitive amphibians, reptiles and rodents.

Once the draft is released, a 45-day public review period will give opponents a chance to weigh in before the final report is issued. The Escondido City Council will hold a public hearing in August or September to decide whether to approve the project. The last step is a public hearing to decide on annexation.

The city of Escondido, the lead agency for the environmental report, lists several changes to the site plan that have tilted the timeline: elimination of both the water factory for wastewater treatment and the public park, making the entry road private instead of public, and relocation of the fire station to the former public park site.

Despite losing some major features, the city update notes that neither the development envelope nor the number of lots has gotten smaller.

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