The Rancho Santa Fe Association’s board room was full on May 7; people spilled out into the lobby, where it was standing room only as the board heard a presentation from Neighbors for San Dieguito River Valley on a proposed step-down housing project on the 28-acre lot on Calzada del Bosque and Via de la Valle.
The group of neighbors is “vehemently opposed” to any high-density housing in the area and has gathered 450 signatures in opposition to the project, 364 of which are from Covenant members.
“Step-down housing” refers to smaller-scale homes for seniors who want to downsize from larger houses.
The preliminary design of Rancho Librado consists of 55 age-restricted units and four custom estate lots that serve as a buffer between the adjacent property owners. The plan includes five acres of open space with ponds, gardens and walkways, and the large home on the property will be converted to a community center for the units.
The land is zoned “C,” which allows for higher-density developments.
Of the property’s 28.7 acres, 14.61 acres or approximately 50 percent is in the Covenant. The non-Covenant parcel will need to be annexed into the Covenant, and that action would need Covenant Design Review Committee approval and the Association Board approval.
“Rancho Librado is not compliant with the General Plan and it ruins the rural nature of the San Dieguito River Valley as it’s envisioned,” said resident Saiid Zarrabian, adding that Neighbors for San Dieguito River Valley would ask that the development be limited to a minimum of 14 units on two-acre lots as per the current zoning.
While gathering signatures for his petition, Zarrabian said he came across only five people who did not want to sign, because they might be interested in step-down housing.
“How important is this need (for step-down housing) and at what expense do we meet this need?” Zarrabian asked.
No plan has officially been submitted to the Association. The project has been presented to the San Dieguito Planning Group and the Fairbanks Ranch and Whispering Palms communities and last came before the Association board in May 2014 as an informational item.
RSF Association Board President Ann Boon was not present at the May 2014 meeting and stated she felt the developers took advantage of the then-board members. Boon said the developers took the board members’ comments that they were in favor of step-down housing as a concept and have presented that to the county and other planning groups as a full project approval.
“I want to say publicly that we have not approved the proposed project,” Boon said.
Philip Wilkinson, who was board president at the time, confirmed that he gave his support to the idea of step-down housing, but said there was a concern expressed about density.
“I’m in favor of step-down housing because I believe you can do anything in the Ranch but retire,” Wilkinson said. “I did tell them I was in favor of step-down housing, but that they needed to go through the process.”
Board member Kim Eggleston said he believes the developers have been “disingenuous” and have been working to “render the Association irrelevant.” Eggleston noted that the project’s consultant group includes former RSF Association Manager Pete Smith, as well as former County Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard (who is also a former RSF Association manager) and developer Ali Shapouri — all of whom, he said, have a lot of experience in how the planning process works. Eggleston said it was “outrageous” that they are circumventing the Association and said they are using their influence inappropriately with the county.
RSF Association Manager Bill Overton said he also believed that the project’s process has gotten “out of order.”
“The Association has a responsibility to protect us and control the situation,” urged neighbor Dave Allred.
The board approved sending a letter to the county asserting its displeasure with the developer and the route taken to “bypass” the Association.
The board also approved reaffirming to the county its position supporting the county’s 2020 General Plan that states there should be a maximum of one house per two-acre parcel (which means 12 to 14 homes rather than 55).
Laura Mabee Boswell, family representative for the Mabee Trust that purchased the property seven years ago, disagreed with the characterization that they are trying to sidestep the Association.
She said the opposite is true, that they started with the RSF Association. Mabee said the only request they are working on with the county is to bring the property’s entitlements in line with the existing Covenant entitlements.
“The county process is lengthy and we are working our way through. We have worked with Association staff over the last year, keeping them informed of our progress at the county level,” Boswell said. “Association staff was also present at our initial presentation to the San Dieguito Planning Group. There has been absolutely no attempt to ‘go around’ the Association, as rumors have suggested.”
According to Boswell, the developers were invited to attend the May 7 meeting to make a presentation, but their design engineer was not available due to a prior commitment. They asked the board to continue the item to a future meeting, but the board did not accommodate the request.
At the May 2014 meeting, Shapouri did tell the board that they would have to submit a General Plan amendment, prepare a specific plan and go through the Covenant Design Review Committee process as well as public hearings with the county — in that order.
According to an Association staff report, then-Acting Manager Ivan Holler suggested the developers work with the Covenant Design Review Committee before they started the General Plan amendment.
However, Boswell said the developer believes the recommendation was to start with the county first. As Boswell stated, county entitlements take a minimum of two years, and under the Covenant regulations, any approval they would receive would expire before the county approval, so they would have to start the process all over again.
“Until you go through the county entitlement process and the technical limitations are established, you don’t know what the county will allow in the way of design options,” Boswell said. “We didn’t want to show the community a design that we later found out couldn’t be built as presented.”
Neighbors like Zarrabian believe that this is not the correct process.
“They are working at the county level and bypassing the Covenant, in my opinion, to get that zoning change,” Zarrabian said. “I don’t think we should let the county allow willy-nilly spot zoning … Our concern is if this rezone is allowed, how do we prevent the next one? It’s possible others will follow suit.”
Zarrabian said the zoning change will set a dangerous precedent — high density could be allowed at the “old walnut grove” property, 10 acres across from Chino Farms on Calzada del Bosque, or at Chino’s farmland, as they might not farm forever. Any neighbor could ask to build more on their properties, he said.
As resident and experienced urban planner Stacey Pennington said, the Association must hold tight to the Covenant plan, which is “anchored by the timeless, visionary principles of smart planning.”
Before anything can be built, the project must go through at least three submittals to the Covenant Design Review Committee and two to the Association board. A signed petition of 100 members objecting to the annexation would trigger a member vote on the action.
Boswell said they would be in support of the project going to a community-wide vote.
“We have worked very hard to balance the character of the community with a need we are hearing from the community. We are looking to provide an alternative for members of the Ranch who, for whatever reason, may find their current home too much to manage but would like to maintain their social groups and memberships,” Boswell said. “Being able to maintain one’s social connections is vital to healthy aging, and we see the homes we are designing as a great option.”