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Hearings near for Harvest Hills

Will the gardens, groves, boutique greenhouses prevent spread of wildfires?

2017 model of entrance to what was called Safari Highlands
  • 2017 model of entrance to what was called Safari Highlands

After many delays, the final environmental impact report for Harvest Hills, a hard-fought, high-end housing proposal in rural Escondido, is expected as early as this month.

In November, 23 environmental, climate and community groups sent a joint letter of opposition to the Escondido city council, urging them to deny the project.

Opponents took another shot the following week when the city council approved a third amendment to the developer's contract, giving more time to finish responses to the 800 comments received on the draft version of the report, and a sphere of influence update.

"Whether it's this iteration or the previous iteration that was denied, tonight is the night you can just say no," said resident Don Greene.

"Let's kill this project now, and move on, and do something that's better and more adequate for the city."

But a no vote wouldn't end it, said Bill Martin, director of community development. It would only mean the applicant would have to get their own consultant to finish the job, removing control from the city.

The report's release will trigger public hearings that promise to be as heated as the feedback on the draft version, which took far longer to complete than the estimated 52 days. Under the rules, each of the 800 comments requires a response. The public review period ended in January 2018.

But that was then. Now, the developer, Concordia Homes, has yet to unveil the "substantial" revisions made in an effort to turn the 550-luxury home development into a carbon neutral agri-hood.

High on the list of concerns ever since the project was proposed in 2015 have been fire safety and evacuation, along with emissions from added vehicle trips, and wildlife habitat.

Concordia took those concerns and came up with a whole new mission. On July 30, they announced "a series of substantial design updates and a new name" for what was then called Safari Highlands Ranch. Now it was Harvest Hills – Escondido’s first carbon neutral, net zero energy, agri-hood.

Each home would have solar paneling, an electric vehicle charging station, and a battery energy storage system.

The agrihood would be a farm-to-table style community with "gardens, groves and boutique greenhouses" knitting together seven distinct neighborhoods that would take up less than a third of the 1,098 acre development, leaving the rest open space.

But the evidence to back all this goodness hasn't been provided. Scott Graves, a member of San Pasqual Valley Preservation Alliance, read from a memo by the consultant, Michael Baker International, that said Concordia intends to submit a "substantially revised specific plan."

However, the consultant had not yet been given the opportunity to evaluate the extent of the project changes, as reflected in the updates, and "resulting need for revisions" to the environmental report.

For example, while the project synopsis says it will be carbon neutral and net zero energy, no substantiating documentation has been provided.

Surely, said Graves, "these never before reviewed" environmental claims must be evaluated by public agencies and commented on by the public.

"The real question today is, should the environmental impact report be recirculated in part or in its entirety?"

Harvest Hills must be brought into the city's sphere of influence, as called for by the Local Agency Formation Commission several years ago.

The request to initiate annexation started in April 2014, Graves said. "How is it, as we approach 2020, the developer is still making significant changes to the specific plan?"

Martin said the revised specific plan is expected within 30 days. The city also awaits more information about the agri-hood, how much water usage is anticipated, and the farmhouse, a community room that will be hardened for fire emergencies – and the carbon neutral proposals, to find out what that means and how the developer will carry it out.

As it stands now, this is the final environmental report, said deputy mayor, Consuelo Martinez. "So does that mean we will no longer have another amendment to the consulting agreement for this project?

Martin said they hoped it was the last. "What we're being told by the consultant is, this roughly $63,000 (funded by the applicant) is enough for them to finish the document, and bring it to the council for certification."

"The individuals who are in opposition to this are the folks who live out in Rancho San Pasqual, Rancho Vistamonte," Martin said. "If it were me, would I like to have this massive fire break created that would protect my home down in the valley? Absolutely. It allows for greater ability to stop, and protect {against} fires in areas further to the west."

Councilmember Diaz, the only vote against the amendment, said she went to many meetings early on. Of all the concerns, wildfire safety was central.

"There's no solution in any report or version I've read. At this time it would be hard for people in that area to even get fire insurance," she said.

"If the San Pasqual neighborhood that's there today, if that were presented today, I would have the same objection to allowing expansion in that kind of fire-prone area."

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