Residents sound off about controversial development plan - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Residents sound off about controversial development plan

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

Orange County-based Stonegate Development wants to build 2,700 homes in Merriam Mountains, located along Interstate 15 at Deer Springs Road. It's surrounded by brush that hasn't burned in decades.

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

Peterson says the project has too many people and too few roads, leaving too little time to evacuate 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 has to take out this entire valley," he 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 developer 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," developer Joe Perring said.

Houses in the project would be built to fire-safe standards, and brush will be cleared 200 feet from roads and structures, but nowhere in the thousands of pages of environmental reports is there a single traffic study showing how long it would take to evacuate the community.

"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 traffic congestion along Interstate 15.

"This project is being promulgated by these Orange County developers, and Bill Horn, and Horn is unfortunately our current supervisor. He received huge contributions from these people for his campaign," Peterson said.

The developer has contributed heavily to the campaigns of Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district includes Merriam Mountains - more than 52,000 since 2000.

"That's private information. I'm not going to comment on that," Perring said.

On Friday morning, 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 Mountains property owners back in 2001:

"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 letter said.

The public hearing on the Merriam Mountain project is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday at the planning commission chambers in Kearny Mesa.

A final vote by the Board of Supervisors is expected in December.

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**Update***

Late Friday afternoon, the county Planning Commission closed public comment and decided to continue a final vote for two weeks.  Several commissioners indicated they wanted to tour the Merriam Mountains property before taking a final vote.

Whether or not the Planning Commission approves the project, the final approval rests with the county Board of Supervisors which is expected to hold another public hearing and vote in December.

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