Lawsuit contests city’s approval of office complex near Del Mar Mesa Preserve

A rendering for the Preserve at Torrey Highlands.

A lawsuit has been filed in San Diego Superior Court, challenging the city’s approval of the Preserve at Torrey Highlands, an office complex bordered on three sides by the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.

Local community opposition group Protect Our Preserves (POPs)’ attorney Cory Briggs filed the complaint on Sept. 24, alleging that San Diego City Council improperly approved an amendment to the Torrey Highlands Community Plan by granting Cisterra Development the rights to build a “controversial” 430,000-square-foot office complex on an 11-acre notch that was carved out of the preserve at the end of Camino Del Sur.

San Diego City Council voted 6-3 to approve the project on Aug. 5, with President Georgette Gomez and Councilmembers Barbara Bry and Monica Montgomery opposed. With its approval, City Council OK’d a community plan amendment and a rezone, from agricultural-residential to industrial park.

“Any change to the Torrey Highlands Sub Area IV Community Plan requires a vote of the people. This plan was approved by a vote of the people and it must be amended by a vote of the people,” said Bob Glaser, president of POPs. “Voter-approved Proposition A in 1986, voter-approved Proposition H in 1996 and the San Diego City Municipal Code clearly require a zoning amendment of this magnitude to go before the voters.”

The project was revised in accordance with the conditions of the San Diego Planning Commission’s April approval, including reducing the project by 30,000 square feet, reducing the height of one of the three office buildings and reducing the height of the proposed seven-story parking garage by two levels.

Cisterra has also agreed to double the landscaping on the south side of the parking structure to provide screening and has taken several environmental measures to ensure protection of the preserve.

POPs’ lawsuit questions the findings of the environmental impact report that informed the City Council’s decision to approve a project, stating that the environmental analysis identified a number of unmitigated impacts to the adjacent 900-acre Del Mar Mesa Preserve but failed to adequately provide evidence that the public benefits outweighed the impacts.

“Del Mar Mesa Preserve is a habitat-rich protected area loved by naturalists and a favorite among San Diego trail users,” said Kathryn Burton, chair of the Torrey Hills Community Planning Board and a member of POPs. “The people of San Diego deserve to have their voices heard in regards to this wildly unpopular project.”

In addition to POPS, groups that have taken a stand against the project include the Sierra Club, Endangered Habitats League, San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, Friends of Rose Canyon, the Rancho Penasquitos and Del Mar Mesa Planning Boards.

“The City Council got it wrong,” said Lisa Ross, spokesperson for POPs.

The Del Mar Mesa Preserve, protected under the city’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), is home to endangered and threatened plants and animals, vernal pools and serves as a popular recreation spot for mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians.

The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is planned for an 11-acre notch that was carved out of the preserve and until it was sold to Cisterra in 2015 was owned by the Catholic Diocese of San Diego and planned to be a church. The property was approved for development in 1996 and it was not in the preserve planning area when the city approved the MSCP in 1997.

“The City Council approved The Preserve at Torrey Highlands, acknowledging that this privately-owned property has long been planned for development since the voters approved the Torrey Highlands community plan almost 25 years ago and recognizing the benefits the project offers for the entire San Diego region,” said David Dick of Cisterra Development. “We are confident that The Preserve at Torrey Highlands will continue forward to deliver critically-needed office space to support San Diego’s innovation economy, while also protecting and enhancing the adjacent Del Mar Mesa Preserve.”

Those who have supported the project include the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Burnham Moores Center for Real Estate, The San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council and local leaders from the life sciences and technology industry such as NuVasive and Glossamer Bio, Inc.

Following the request of Councilmember Chris Ward in an Aug. 7 letter to the developer, Cisterra has agreed to accelerate its commitment to deliver the $485,000 it had already committed for Del Mar Mesa Preserve habitat conservation and rehabilitation. According to a Sept. 9 letter to the city, the funding will become available immediately after the project entitlements are fully vested and no longer subject to legal challenge, as compared to their previous offer of distributing the funds over 15 years.

According to Cisterra, they have also coordinated with the Chaparral Lands Conservancy, City of San Diego, US Fish and Wildlife, California Fish and Wildlife and other stakeholders to expand their benefit by identifying a potential $200,000 grant from SANDAG that could be used for additional enhancements to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.

The grant would increase Cisterra’s $485,000 commitment to a total of $685,000 for enhancements, restoration management and enforcement within the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.