Judge rejects lawsuit challenging validity of Newland Sierra petition drive

A legal challenge to the way signatures were gathered for an initiative that will ask voters whether they want to overturn the county’s approval of the Newland Sierra housing project in North County has been rejected by a judge.

Newland Communities was asking San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Medel to set aside the initiative because, the company asserted, the petitions were deficient on several levels. The developer said the paid signature-gatherers either did not provide enough information to potential signers or misrepresented facts about the 2,135-home project. More than 117,000 people signed the petitions.

“Even if there was some ‘technical’ violation, one is hard-pressed to see how this would mislead any voter,” Medel concluded in his decision released Thursday.

The ruling means voters countywide in March 2020 will be asked whether they want to overturn the county Board of Supervisors’ approval of the project on Sept. 26.

As long as a vote is scheduled, work cannot begin on the large housing and commercial project proposed for the hills just west of Interstate 15, about five miles north of downtown Escondido.

Newland’s lawyers made several arguments challenging the legal worthiness of the petitions. The judge dismissed each argument in order. He also said allegations that paid gathers were misrepresenting the facts were insignificant.

“In this case, at best, the evidence is that out of 117,000 signatures (there were) five instances of misrepresentations by signatures gatherers … Even if the Court accepts the evidence as true, the Court lacks sufficient evidence to conclude a pattern of misconduct warranting voiding the referendum process.”

Newland Communities decided Thursday evening to reserve comment on the ruling until it has time to review it.

Supporters of the referendum were overjoyed.

“San Diego voters know bad development when they see it, and now they will have the opportunity to be heard on the March 2020 ballot,” said Chris Garrett of Latham & Watkins, attorneys representing the Committee Against Newland Sierra and Bad Development.

“We appreciate the thoughtful deliberation of Judge Medel, and the overwhelming support of San Diego voters. More than 117,000 people worked to get this on the ballot for the benefit of all San Diegans.”

Supporters of Newland Sierra say the project will help ease the critical housing shortage in the county. They say it is a well-planned project that will improve roads in the area and meets all fire safety requirements.

Opponents include the Golden Door luxury spa located just south of Deer Springs Road and across the that street from the entrance of the would-be development. They say the project will bring horrible traffic to the semi-rural area, could cause a fire evacuation tragedy, and is sprawl development in contrast to the county’s General Plan, which calls for homes to be built in more urban areas near established infrastructure like schools and public transportation.

The Golden Door, which says construction of Newland Sierra would force them to close their business, which sells serenity and peace to its high-end customers, funded the signature-gathering drive at a cost of close to $1 million.

Opponents, which also include neighborhood and environmental groups, are also suing the county over the supervisors approval.

jharry.jones@sduniontribune.com; 760/529-4931; Twitter: @jharryjones

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