Carmel Valley board requests community involvement in proposed Costco

Community members gather outside the district office on Oct. 15 to protest the potential lease of a parcel of district land to Costco.
(Emily Sorensen)

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board approved sending a letter to the Poway Unified School District (PUSD) board in support of the efforts of the nonprofit Protect Our Community Now—the community group wants more involvement in Poway Unified’s proposed lease of district-owned property in Santaluz to Costco.

Costco plans to develop the site as an urban village center with the Costco store, retail, restaurants and a residential housing element. The 27-acre property, located at the northeast corner of Camino del Sur and Carmel Valley Road, was at one time proposed to be a middle school for the district.

Protect Our Community Now has expressed concerns and “outrage” about the district’s lack of transparency and the public process surrounding the plan.

“We were all shocked when we found out,” said Gianni Nguyen, a member of Protect Our Community Now, a grassroots group of nearly 2,000 local residents. “The community was shut out of the process.”

On Oct. 28, the group announced they have filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging that the district failed to comply with the legal requirements to dispose of school property and excluded the community from meaningful public input on the other proposals received. The group is being represented by the law firm Procopio.

“This is not about opposition to a specific project, it’s all about a failure to adhere to required process and transparency,” said John Lemmo, an attorney with Procopio in a release. “School districts have an obligation to garner community interest if they want to declare school land unneeded ‘surplus’ and change its use. PUSD not only ignored the process, they appear to have actively subverted it.”

Poway Unified declared the property surplus back in 2012, determining there was not sufficient need for a middle school at that site. In 2019, the district began exploring potential alternative uses for the site and issued a request for proposals. In addition to Costco, they received two other proposals from Brookfield Residential and Cambridge School.

At the Sept. 10 school board meeting, the board determined Costco’s proposal to be the “most beneficial,” as it creates an income stream and allows the district to retain ownership of the property. The final option agreement—a near $50 million acquisition price— and 40- to 60-year ground lease are expected to come back to the school board for approval on Nov. 12.

Community members have spoken out at the last two school board meetings and Protect Our Community Now held a rally in front of the district’s office on Oct. 16. The group feels their voices are being ignored.

“They do not seem to care about the community’s feedback that they are receiving,” said Protect Our Community Now member Jessica Vogelsang. “For us, this isn’t about the project, it’s all about the process. Our issue right now isn’t with Costco, it’s with the district.”

Vogelsang said the process has been flawed and has not allowed for meaningful involvement from the community on issues such as the impact of placing multiple commercial buildings in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The group would like to encourage the board to stop the process and instead partner with the community to determine the best use of land for both the school district and the community.

Planning board members shared the group’s concerns about the property’s location adjacent to Black Mountain Open Space Park and a heavily-used bike corridor, as well as the potential impacts of having a proposed regional use so close to homes in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

“On one hand it would be nice to have a Costco closer but it is definitely going to impact PHR,” said board member Allen Kashani.

The district said if the lease is approved, the developer Costco will likely spend several years engaging with the community and the city. There will be opportunities for public input as the project goes through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process and public hearing process with the city for the required zoning change.

Currently the property is zoned agriculture residential and any proposed zone change is subject to Prop A. Prop A, which passed in 1985, states that any development on agriculturally-zoned land is to be very low density housing, open space or agricultural use. Any more intense development must go to a city-wide vote.

Costco anticipates a several years-long process with a potential vote in November 2022. Should the electorate vote against the zoning change, the land would go back to PUSD.