When Charlie Jancic thinks about wildfire in the San Pasqual Valley, it’s from real life. In 2007, the Witch Fire and Guejito Fire took his house. “The roads aren’t great — they’re mostly two lanes, but our neighbors and us, we made it out.” But adding another 550 homes to the area — mountainous terrain south and east of Escondido — without adding a lot more road.... “It’s just dangerous,” he says. “There are two roads out of there.”
The Safari Highlands project has neighbors worried to the point where they (San Pasqual Valley Preservation Alliance) have hired an attorney. The proposed project aims to build 550 luxury homes – priced at around $1 million each on 1,100 acres of county land that’s zoned for 27 homes.
Concordia Homes LLC developers aim to persuade Escondido city officials to annex the land from the county in part to change that zoning. The city has already overseen drafting the environmental report, paid for by the developers. The project is designed on top of high mesas and hills to the north of the Safari Park, in drawings that look like snow caps on high ridges. Images created by overlaying the plans in the EIR atop Google Earth views of the topography help illustrate why developers plan to move 4.6 million cubic yards of rock and dirt to grade for the project.
NeySa Ely, the valley resident and head of the preservation group who created the images, says Concordia hates those images off the Save San Pasqual Valley website. “The one thing they have not said was that the images are inaccurate,” she said. “I don’t see how they could, since the renderings came from their own EIR.”
The project is higher in elevation than the hundreds of existing homes in the Eagle Crest and Rancho San Pasqual developments at the foothills the proposed project rests above. The project will have two two-lane roads in and out; the proposed extension of Rockwood Road that travels through two recent developments with more than 600 existing homes, and a south road that comes in above the Wild Animal Park and becomes a service road down to San Pasqual Valley Road.
Concordia plans to spend $4 million to upgrade the existing roads and add an emergency exit. The zoo does not want that road used except as an emergency road, and a quick drive on it reveals why: the aging road is narrow and lacks shoulders in places; or is lined on one side by stone wall and the other side is a drop off to land far below. The developers also plan to create an emergency road at the northwest edge that will go to Lake Wohlford.
Calls to Concordia officials were forwarded to Southwest Strategies, a public relations and government strategy firm. Provided with a list of questions, the organization responded five days later. The questions and responses are at the end of this article. Southwest Strategies also directed me to Friends of Safari Highlands, a pro-development group. The Safari Highlands web page talks about economic benefits, and says the project will provide “significant economic benefits to the local community, including new jobs and tax revenues for local government.”
The terrain where the homes will be built is rough, jagged, and beautiful, and will need to be blasted with explosives to create the gradeable surfaces on which the seven neighborhoods will be built. Opponents say that’s just the beginning of what’s wrong with it. “It’s pretty much the picture version of sprawl,” says Ely, the head of the preservation alliance. “We don’t think they’ve thought about the real world implications of what they want to do.” It’s not the first time someone’s tried to develop the 1,100-acre parcel, which includes Multiple Species Conservation habitat. The previous owner ended up in bankruptcy, Ely says. Homes will be placed on about 220 acres, with the remaining 790 preserved as open space.
“In 2007, the fires burned right up to my back fence,” she explains. “I can picture a winding two-lane road with thousands of people trying to get out while firefighters are trying to get the big trucks in. It’s not a theoretical problem. People died around Highland Valley Road in 2007.”
The developers have promised to build and equip a new fire station, and they say the staffing would be provided by the city of Escondido with the excess tax funds. Figuring at a $1 million sales price for 550 homes, that’s about $5.5 million in property taxes a year. There’s no commitment for ongoing funding to maintain the fire station, critics say.
In response to questions about fire safety, the developers say that the residents of those homes will be able to evacuate in one to two hours. Their experts say that people in the existing communities would need an hour or two. If all areas were ordered to evacuate (on the same roads), the time for all to get out grows to three hours. Their analysis says that the two most likely areas that a fire would come from give the residents three to four hours before it arrives. In one scenario, the draft environmental report says the fire could arrive in 40 minutes. But windblown fires move fast, especially in the foothills during Santa Ana conditions, opponents’ experts say. And, should firefighters try to bring in heavy equipment to fight an approaching fire, they would compete for roadway with evacuating residents, Ely says.
Fire is the biggest worry, she says, but far from the only concern. The developers will pay impact fees that go for infrastructure, but it may not be enough money to cover the impacts on the schools, San Pasqual Valley Unified School District officials have said. Sewer and water lines have to be built up the hills from the Escondido communities below, adding burden to the existing supply lines.
The San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians has objected to the development. In an April 2017 letter, the tribe’s chairman notes that of 49 sites significant to the tribe’s history and heritage. Concordia’s expert indicated that just four of them are significant. However, the Indians' letter says Concordia’s experts were “unable to locate” an unknown number of those 49 sites for the 2015 review. “With our rich ancestral ties to the land, the numerous cultural resource sites and our concern for the impacts on the important biological resources, we object to any large-scale development in this area." The Sierra Club, the Buena Vista Audubon Society and the Chaparral Institute also oppose the project.
The environmental report should be finished this summer, the developers say.