Help CNPS Keep the Merriam Mountains Wild: Say No to Newland Sierra

Merriam Mountains. Photo courtesy of Denise Price.

By Frank Landis, CNPS San Diego Chapter Conservation Chair

Southern California is faced with a serious affordable housing crisis, and decision-makers are under pressure to help find solutions. Developers statewide are pressuring local leaders to approve 90s-era sprawl projects as answers to the crisis. In reality, projects like Centennial and the Newland Sierra development we discuss below fail to present real solutions while threatening much-needed habitat. Please read on to learn how you can help this week as we face yet another critical local vote.


If you’ve driven past Deer Springs Road on the I-15, north of Escondido, you’ve driven by the Merriam Mountains. (They’re the hills on the west side of the highway.) Beyond those hills is a steep-sided valley running north-south that developers have been ogling since the 1990s — a valley that’s home to old chaparral, a nice stand of Engelmann oaks, some wetlands, and towards its mouth, some farmlands, a Catholic mission, and a Zen center. Quiet and peaceful, no?

To a developer, this peace and quiet looks like a profitable opportunity, and profit-seekers have wanted to turn this valley into another Del Mar since the 1990s. In a current proposal, named “Newland Sierra” after the Newland Development Company, developers want to construct 2,135 homes for more than 5,000 people on critically important wildlife habitat. The Zen Center will have to move elsewhere, as will other local businesses that depend on the valley’s tranquil nature.

Broken Habitat

What happens if more than 5,000 people move into the Merriam Mountains? For one, a big block of open space will be bisected. Planning regulations require that developments in high fire risk areas have two or more exit routes, so there will be roads crisscrossing the entire site. These roads will chop one of the most important wildlife corridors in the region into pieces. If you have driven along the I-15, you’re familiar with this wildlife corridor—it’s all the undeveloped hills along the freeway. It’s crucial for birds like the California gnatcatcher, but animals use it too. Unfortunately, the terrestrial portion of the corridor requires animals to cross Deer Springs Road and use a culvert on the south side of the highway to go east and south.

Where animals go, plants hitch a ride, and the native plants need that corridor as much as the animals do, especially in a world with a rapidly changing climate.

There are other issues too. Over three acres of wetlands will be destroyed without mitigation, most of the Engelmann oaks will be lost, fire risk will be exacerbated, and huge quantities of greenhouse gases will be emitted (mostly from new residents commuting). Newland Sierra will also increase fire risk in the region According to CalFire more than 95 percent of fire ignitions in the state are caused by humans. Significantly increasing the population in the Merriam Mountains will result in an increased risk of catastrophic wildfire. Can 5,000 people get out of this steep valley in an hour or two? Do we really want to risk human lives and find out the answer to this question? In the case of a disaster like a wildfire, everybody will be stuck in a traffic jam-trying to get in to save their stuff, or trying to get out. How will the fire engines get in? These questions and others are not the primary concern of a developer hell bent on making a profit.

A false solution to the housing crisis

As of late, it has been hard to avoid news about California’s housing crisis, and just like in many other urban areas, San Diego County has a severe housing shortage. But, much like in other areas, the real issue in San Diego County is that there is an affordable housing shortage. For example, the median income in San Diego is around $60,000, and on that budget, you can comfortably afford a house priced at $300,000-$350,000, and few developers are building $300,000 homes. The median home value in San Diego is more than $500,000 and that’s the low end for the homes Newland Sierra wants to build. Newland Sierra wants to build homes for 5,000 people but they won’t be affordable.

That’s the dirty little secret of the San Diego housing crisis. We’ve got an oversupply of $500,000-plus homes, and that’s almost all that the developers want to build.

They’re not building houses average people can afford to buy Even if all the houses in Newland Sierra sell, perhaps to overseas investors, most people will still have to commute up to Temecula to find affordable homes.

So why is San Diego County even considering Newland Sierra’s proposal? The developer might think they’ve got the Supervisors on their side. It is our job to change that. We need to remind the supervisors that this development will build unaffordable homes that result in unmitigatable environmental destruction. In addition to not solving the housing crisis, it will add to already severe fire danger, increase greenhouse gas emissions, destroy native habitats, and sever a major wildlife corridor. We must encourage the County to make the correct decision for the residents of San Diego not for out-of-town profit-motivated developers.

How you can help

  1. Attend the meeting. Newland Sierra will be in front of the Board on September 26, 2018. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego (by the waterfront, parking available if you get there around 8). Get there early to sign a speaker slip. You’ll have two minutes to speak, which is one typed page, or three paragraphs of text. Contact Frank Landis at conservation@cnpssd.org for ideas about what to say.
  2. Call Your Supervisor. If you can’t make the meeting, call your supervisor and tell them that you oppose the Newland Sierra development. Be polite, thank the staffers for taking your comment.
  3. Email. You can also email your comments to David.Hall@sdcounty.ca.gov. Please address your message to the Honorable Supervisors. (Feel free to contact me, Frank Landis, at conservation@cnpssd.org for ideas about what to write.) As above, be polite — the supervisors regularly get yelled at by passionate people, and it doesn’t help your cause. Be cool and polite, no matter how you feel about it.
  4. Spread the Word. Wherever you live, please share CNPS social media posts, and tell as many people as possible about the Newland Sierra Project. The project is an example of poor planning, and the residents of San Diego County need better!

And finally, a word about CEQA. If this project is approved, they will be sued. CEQA suits are entirely about The Record, which is all the testimony and all the comments they received before the decision. That’s why it’s so important that you call in, write in, and testify: you’re giving ammunition for the suit. That’s why it is so very important that you participate in these actions. Thank you!

3 Comments

  1. Dear Supervisor-

    It is important for San Diego county to support plans for affordable communities in “infill areas” that have designed in existing supporting public transportation systems and new public transportation systems that compliment existing communities rather than creating more commute communities that degrade the nature environment and add to transportation pollution.

    Regards,

    Heidi Krantz

  2. One concern I haven’t seen mentioned is that it is next to impossible to obtain insurance for a property in a high fire danger designated area. I think that would make development in such an area a non-starter from a business standpoint. Fire hazard maps were recently updated and many more areas in San Diego are now designated high fire danger. I have heard that these property owners are discovering that even if they have insurance now their policy will not be renewed and they cannot find another insurance company to insure their property. Having insurance is a requirement for a mortgage. No insurance = no mortgage = no sale = why build it in the first place?

  3. Hello Heidi! I work for Newland and we agree that we should create infill affordable communities near transportation systems. There is an existing I-15 off-ramp and park and ride at the front door of our project and we will spend substantial $$ to expand capacity on local and regional roads. There are numerous other sustainable features in our community as well. As for affordable – we will be substituting a wide array of home price points ($300 to $800k) for the up to 2 million square feet of commercial development and 99 million dollar plus Estate Ranches allowed in the General Plan. Allowing projects to be overturned by referendum after a lengthy approval process that just didn’t go your way will make housing more expensive for all.

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