A community-wide meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club to hear details on Rancho Librado, a proposed step-down housing community of 50 age-restricted casitas and four estate lots on Calzada del Bosque and Via de la Valle.
No project has been submitted to the Rancho Santa Fe Association yet, but developers Golden Eagle Management have felt the need to address the community because an opposition effort has grown as they continue to move through the county process.
“It’s important we bring the concept forward and let the community know the facts and let people have informed opinion about the project,” said Laura Mabee Boswell, a representative of Golden Eagle and the Mabee Trust.
Resident and project opponent Saiid Zarrabian has been collecting signatures against Rancho Librado since mid-February. Through word of mouth and two five-hour sessions in front of the post office, his Neighbors for San Dieguito River Valley Preservation group has gathered 865 signatures against the project. Of the 865, Zarrabian said 535 are Covenant members, 125 live in Fairbanks Ranch, 55 live in Whispering Palms and 150 live in other parts of Rancho Santa Fe.
Zarrabian said the message he’s heard from opponents is that the use is not consistent with the area. He said the county’s general plan guidelines are meant to keep the area parcels semirural. Under the current zoning, development would be limited to a maximum of 14 units on two-acre lots.
“People moved to the river valley to enjoy a rural community, not density,” Zarrabian said. “This is important. I love this community. I think this is a jewel and I’ve been doing my best to try and preserve it … it has been a fight.”
Boswell has brought in former RSF Association Manager Pete Smith and his consulting firm Ekard Smith and Associates to help move through the Association and county process.
Boswell’s father, Larry Mabee, purchased the 28-acre parcel in 2008 intending to build a horse farm and private residence on the property. His plans were held up with the county and he passed away in 2012.
“Unfortunately, he was never able to build his vision. I wish he would have been able to build what he had in his head,” Boswell said. “I live in this community and I think of this as my community, too. In designing this project, I have tried to be sensitive to the neighborhood and the character of the community.”
The preliminary design consists of 50 age-restricted units and four custom estate lots that will serve as a buffer between the adjacent property owners. The large home on the property will be converted to a community center for the units.
The land is currently zoned “C,” which allows for higher density developments. Of the four parcels on the property, only one is within the Covenant and will require an internal annexation.
While the plan does represent a higher density, Smith points to a Covenant exception agreement signed by architect Lilian Rice in 1930 that allows higher-density uses in that area.
“I don’t think it’s out of line with the historic vision of the Ranch,” Boswell said.
Smith said the Association’s zoning is more liberal than the county’s. Within the Association, the property is zoned for multi-family, and the proposed project would require no variances. The county’s rural residential zoning allows one house per two acres, and the developers will be asking to change it to one house per half acre.
Boswell said they have started working on the county entitlements first, because they take a minimum of two years. 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.
“We can’t design until the county tells us what the requirements will be,” Smith said.
Smith said they have kept the Association informed as they move through the process and have even made changes to the plan as suggested by the Association. Boswell said it’s a “long and tedious” technical process and she understands why residents might have concerns, but she was frustrated by the characterization given at the May 7 board meeting that they were “out of order” or trying to work around the Association.
“We are sticking to the rules 100 percent; we’re not circumventing the process or trying to go through the back door,” Smith said, noting that in his 23 years of experience with the Association, he knows that there is no such back door.
“There is no way around the Association process. Between the Covenant Design Review Committee and the board, there will be a minimum of five public hearings on this project.”
A community vote on Rancho Librado could even occur during the annexation process. A signed petition of 100 members objecting to the annexation would trigger a member vote on the action.
Smith believes that the project’s benefits far outweigh any negatives.
“We’re giving a lot to the community and not asking for any variances,” he said.
In addition to meeting a long-established need for senior housing or step-down housing, Smith said the project provides an additional $213,000 per year in revenue to the Association and the opportunity for additional golf and tennis club memberships.
Although no students will be generated from the project because of the age-restricted housing, it will provide an additional $150,000 in revenue to the Rancho Santa Fe School District.
The project will provide a resource for more than 110 surrounding Covenant homes to link to the community’s sewer system and the landscape and open space features will be watered through the use of an existing well on the property.
“This is a high-producing well and we’re looking at the potential to provide excess water to the Covenant as a way to water their greens,” Boswell said, noting the well generates more than 1 million gallons of water a day, more than enough to water the property and cover the needs of the golf club and playing fields.
Boswell said they are looking to offer this water with no strings attached, even if the project is not approved.
“This is my community and if I have a resource that can help my community, I would like to provide it,” she said.
There has been some opposition to the inclusion of lakes in the project’s plans. Smith said the lakes were an amenity that resulted as part of the county’s required flood control system, and they are exploring options to remove them, pending hydrology studies.
Smith said there would not be a significant increase in traffic. Each home will generate eight trips a day. However, as the homes are age-restricted, the travel times will not be during peak traffic times. Rancho Librado is also planned to be self-contained, with the community clubhouse, swimming pool, gym, sauna, a concierge, mail delivery and light shopping for its residents.
The developers have also looked at traffic-calming measures on Calzada del Bosque, such as separate turn lanes, and they will be able to lower the speed limit from 50 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour because of the senior housing facility, should the neighbors desire the change.
There will be very little visual impact from the homes from the street view, and they will look to enhance that corner that serves as the window and entrance to Rancho Santa Fe with open space.
“It’s not a pretty window right now; it doesn’t look like you’re driving into one of the wealthiest communities in the country,” Smith said.
The home on the corner will be removed, and there will be 430 feet of open space before the first home. Sixty percent of the property will be set aside as permanent open space and will include 3 1/2 miles of trails open to Covenant residents.
A “dangerous precedent”
Zarrabian bought his property in 2001 and he said his frustration lies in the fact that everyone around him followed the rules and built what they were allowed to under the current zoning.
Every parcel in the neighborhood is within three to 15 acres, including the vacant 10-acre “Walnut Grove” parcel on Calzada del Bosque across from Chino Farms.
“The fear here is if this developer is able to rezone and get four times the density, there’s nothing to prevent the next guy or the next guy from doing the same,” Zarrabian said. “Setting a precedent is the fear. What’s to prevent all of these large parcels from following this road map? We’re abdicating our village style and the rural environment we’ve protected for 100 years.”
Zarrabian pointed to a previous application in 2006, when a developer approached the Association about building 84 units of senior housing on the property. At that time, the planning committee recommended that any density should be concentrated in the village and that senior housing should be within a 15- to 20-minute walking distance radius to the village.
He said he hopes that the Association upholds that view — that the appropriate setting for this kind of density and senior housing is in the village.
No plan has officially been submitted to the Association. However, at a May 2014 meeting, the board did express support for the concept of step-down housing but told the developers they still had to go through the process.
At the May 7 meeting this year, the Association heard from the project opposition and sent a letter to the county expressing their concerns about the process and asserted their position supporting the 2020 General Plan that states there should be a maximum of one house per two-acre parcel.
Zarrabian said he would be “incredibly supportive” of the developers building according to the zoning, with 14 estates similar to the surrounding neighbors.
As far as the project’s proposed benefits, Zarrabian is skeptical.
“I have to admit Rancho Santa Fe is the one place in the country where step-down housing is $2.5 to $6 million,” Zarrabian said. “A few members will be able to benefit from step-down housing but 865 people say ‘No, don’t do this is our community.’”
His group has expressed doubts about the well water and as for the benefit of connecting to the sewer line, Zarrabian said he has had septic at his last three homes and it works fine.
“To allow the densification of the whole community isn’t worth the sewer line,” Zarrabian said. “The benefits don’t outweigh the costs.”
The opposition’s petition can be viewed at neighborsforsandieguitorivervalley.org.