Planning Commission to vote on 2,700 home development - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Planning Commission to vote on 2,700 home development in North County

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Extreme fire danger, lack of water, and traffic congestion; those are the arguments against a proposed housing development north of Escondido.  After nearly a decade of controversy over the Merriam Mountains project, it's finally coming to a public vote Friday morning.

The proposed Merriam Mountains development sits along Interstate 15 at Deer Springs Road.  Orange county based Stonegate Development wants to build 2,700 homes there surrounded by brush that hasn't burned in decades.

"The fire risk is really significant," said neighboring homeowner Rob Peterson.  "There's no evacuation plan and they admit that."

Peterson says too many people and too few roads would leave too little time to evacuate the development during a wildfire.

"The poor people in there.  There's no way they'll get in or out.  It would be gridlocked and then the fire basically will take out this entire valley," Peterson said.

Stonegate Development has spent millions of dollars doing studies that claim the project will be fire safe.

But in an earlier interview with News 8, when asked if the entire project could be evacuated during a wildfire, the development project manager Joe Perring became defensive.

"It's really not a simple question.  And you know it's not a simple question.  It just is one that creates controversy.  And truthfully, it's offensive to me." Perring said.

Houses in the project would be built to fire safe standards.  Brush will be cleared up to 200 feet from roads and structures.

But nowhere in the thousands of pages of environmental reports is there a single traffic study showing exactly how long it would take to evacuate the entire community.  The developer says an evacuation study is not required.

"The question for us is do our roadways have enough capacity for our people to get out in an evacuation situation.  And the answer is yes," Perring said.

Opponents also have concerns about water availability for the estimated 8,000 new residents and increased traffic congestion along Interstate 15.  The developer is promising to widen Deer Springs Road before houses are built.

"This project is being promulgated by Orange County developers and Bill Horn.  And, Horn is unfortunately our current (county) supervisor," Peterson told News 8.  "He received huge contributions from these (developers) for his campaign."

Indeed, the Merriam Mountains developer has contributed heavily to benefit the campaigns of supervisor Horn, whose district includes the development.  Those contributions total more than $52,000 since the year 2000, according to campaign records.

The developer declined in a previous interview to comment on those contributions.

On Friday, October 9th, the county Planning Commission will finally vote on the project after a public hearing.  A large crowd is expected, just as the developer predicted in an internal Stonegate letter written to Merriam Mountain property owners back in 2001.

The letter reads in part, "Supervisor Horn's aides have asked us to provide political cover for the supervisors if we are to bring this project forward and expect their support.  We must have some supporters speak in favor of the project so as not to give the media the impression that everyone is against this project..."

The entire letter is posted on this web page.

The public hearing on the Merriam Mountains development begins Friday at 9 a.m. at the Planning Commission chambers in Kearny Mesa.  A final vote on the development by the Board of Supervisors is expected in December 2009.

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