County decision clears way for Rancho Santa Fe project construction to begin


By Joe Tash

The developer of a proposed mixed-use commercial and residential project at the entrance to the Whispering Palms community in Rancho Santa Fe won a victory last week when the County of San Diego certified an environmental impact report for the project.

While the decision by county Public Works director Richard Crompton to certify the environmental document as complete clears the way for construction to begin, project opponents have until Friday, June 8, to appeal the decision to the County Board of Supervisors. A spokesman for a community group opposed to the project said an appeal will be filed.

“The community has long sought to see that the lot be developed. This is not a case of ‘not in my back yard’ protest, this community wants nothing more than to see this eyesore at the entrance to Whispering Palms be developed properly, with something that fits with community character and that would not generate as much traffic, both on Via de la Valle and within the community,” said Jeff Carmel, a member of the Whispering Palms Community Council.

Carmel said that if the Board of Supervisors denies the appeal, as expected, residents are likely to go to court in a bid to stop the project.

Wayne Brechtel, the attorney for developer Richard Cavanaugh and his company, Newport Pacific, Inc., said the appeals would not be a surprise, but he anticipates the development will eventually go forward.

“I think we’ve complied with the law here,” Brechtel said. While some people simply don’t like the project, he said, “My expectation is when it actually gets developed people are going to be pretty happy. We’re hopeful it’s going to be something people feel positive about down the road.”

Cavanaugh wants to build 54 apartments totaling 58,000 square feet of living space, 19,500 square feet of offices and 9,500 square feet of retail space on a 4.3 acre parcel at the corner of Via de la Valle and Cancha de Golf.

The project site is the last vacant piece of land in the Whispering Palms development, which includes about 600 condominiums and single-family homes.

Cavanaugh is the original developer of Whispering Palms, and the development will benefit the local community by providing shops and professional services, along with another housing option for the area, said Brechtel.

But opponents, including many residents of Whispering Palms, oppose the project because of the traffic it will generate. They also contend it will clash with community character.

In certifying the environmental impact report, the county adopted a “statement of overriding consideration” that concedes the project “would result in significant cumulative traffic impacts on Via de la Valle/Paseo Delicias. The identified mitigation measures include payment into the (traffic impact fund) which would reduce, but not eliminate, the significant cumulative traffic impacts.”

The document goes on to say that the project should be allowed to move forward because it fits in with the county’s general plan and zoning for the area, would complete development of Whispering Palms, supplements the range of housing offered in Whispering Palms, and promotes the county’s land-use goals by providing a sustainable, mixed-use development.

Carmel, however, disputed the county’s reasoning.

“No one is going to benefit other than the developer. The community doesn’t want it, the (San Dieguito ) planning group doesn’t want it, or the Rancho Santa Fe Association. Despite every public comment that this is inappropriate, the county in their infinite wisdom thinks there’s a benefit to it,” Carmel said.

In comment letters sent to the county last fall, both the San Dieguito Planning Group and the Rancho Santa Fe Association objected to the project, and called for more study of its impacts.

“The Association continues to oppose the size and scale of the proposed project, which will result in significant and unmitigable cumulative traffic impacts,” said the RSF Association’s letter.

“The community is very upset. The applicant is doing an end run around the planning process to obtain so many apartments at that location by fiat,” wrote planning group member Laurel Lemarie on behalf of the advisory panel.

Brechtel said the Palma de la Reina project is only one of many in the area that will add to traffic congestion. He said the developer will be making improvements to nearby intersections and contributing between $500,000 and $700,000 to the county’s traffic impact fund.

The only way to completely eliminate the traffic problems in the area, he said, would be to widen Via de la Valle to four lanes from its current two. But such an expansion was ruled out by the county when it adopted an updated General Plan in 2011.

“The project is contributing to mitigating its impacts directly and through the county program for mitigation. It’s by no means tossing gas onto the fire,” Brechtel said.

Cavanaugh has been seeking to develop the vacant property for more than a decade. Residents took him to court in the late 1990s to block a previous plan to build an assisted living facility on the site. The plan was ultimately withdrawn.