Proposed Del Mar Mesa fire station faces community opposition

This vacant lot in Del Mar Mesa off Carmel Mountain Road is a proposed location for a new fire station.

Del Mar Mesa residents are ramping up in opposition to a proposed new fire station on a piece of property that has been set aside as a habitat conservation area.

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department plans to build the new fire station to better serve the communities of Del Mar Mesa and Torrey Hills—currently those communities are served by Fire Station 24 on Del Mar Heights Road, and stations in Pacific Highlands Ranch and Sorrento Valley. To build the station, the city is targeting a Del Mar Mesa lot that it acquired from Pardee Homes in 2019.

The site is located off Carmel Mountain Road near the entrance to the Alta Del Mar community on Gallop Crest Court, east of the intersection with Carmel Country Road. Per the deed, Pardee granted the land to the city as Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) land. The grant deed states that the grantee agrees “to protect and manage the property as open space preserve”.

Local residents found out about the proposed station about a year ago and since then have tried to get involved in the city’s process but have been frustrated about the lack of communication.

“It’s like pulling teeth to get updates and information,” said Ray Ellis, chair of the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board.

Ellis wrote letters to the city in June and September 2020 and again in January this year but they have never received a formal response nor have they been asked for their input. Community members fear they are being left out of the process and want to protect the open space from development. The Shaw Valley Wildlife Coalition and Alta Del Mar Homeowners Association have hired an attorney to represent their interests.

“The site on which the fire department proposes to build a massive three-bay fire station is sensitive wildlife habitat deeded to the city as dedicated open space for the benefit of all San Diegans,” said Dan Drosman, a member of the Shaw Valley Wildlife Coalition. “Because this site is truly a jewel in the crown of the Los Penasquitos Preserve and a critical corridor between wildlife habitats, the city’s insistence on building there can be explained only as a cash grab focused on Del Mar Mesa’s facilities benefit assessment (FBA) funds.”

According to San Diego-Fire Rescue Department’s Mónica Muñoz, media services manager, the department is still “very, very early” in the process on the Del Mar Mesa station.

The need for a fire station in the area is based on a 2017 report by outside consultant Citygate. Torrey Hills was one of six areas in the city identified to fill emergency response time gaps. The goal is for the fire department to arrive at a scene within seven and a half minutes 90% of the time and, according to the report, the city was only meeting that goal 79 to 80% of the time due to travel time from too few fire stations across increasingly traffic-congested roads.

“There was a plan in place to extend Carmel Valley Road, which would allow access to Del Mar Mesa from Station 47 (in Pacific Highlands Ranch) but the cost of that road project far exceeded the projected use. Thus, the project was not feasible at the time,” Muñoz said. “That’s when the plan to move it further east was born –- to provide appropriate service to both Torrey Hills and Del Mar Mesa.”

As the fire department could not identify a property in Torrey Hills, they instead focused their attention on the land acquired in Del Mar Mesa. A site survey is currently being completed for a station of at least 11,400 square feet.

“We plan on it accommodating one fire engine and four personnel but we are building all stations for future growth to accommodate additional crews if necessary,” Muñoz said.

On March 23, Josh Chatten-Brown, the attorney representing the Shaw Valley Wildlife Coalition and Alta Del Mar Homeowners Association, sent a letter to the city urging them to refrain from development of the parcel for any purpose, including for a fire station. Chatten-Brown asserted that the development of the open space preserve land is precluded due to the grant deed restriction, the Del Mar Mesa Specific Plan and the Coastal Act.

“Should the city, in spite of these restrictions on development, decide to move forward with development of this parcel, the city must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), as the project will have significant impacts, including impacts to biological resources and land use,” Chatten-Brown wrote.

According to the letter, the Shaw Valley lot is “relatively undisturbed” and has evidence of rare and endangered plants and species, as well as nearby vernal pools. Additionally, the lot is one of only three natural wildlife corridors connecting Carmel Mountain Preserve through Shaw Valley to Los Peñasquitos Canyon.

The open space site in Del Mar Mesa.

As the project proceeds, Muñoz said the need for an EIR will be determined.

“A specific project has not yet been proposed; but like any public project would comply with all development regulations, including the directives in the city’s MSCP and Environmentally Sensitive Lands Regulations,” said Tara Lewis, a public information officer with the city.

In the Citygate report, fire stations were estimated to cost $12 million to build. Currently, the Del Mar Mesa community has $8 million in available facilities benefit assessment (FBA) funds, also known as developer impact fees (DIF), with about $5.2 to $6 million left to be collected from the few remaining undeveloped lots.

Ellis has attempted to clarify to the city what they would like to do with that funding, such as developing a connection between Carmel Valley Road and Little McGonigle Ranch Road as an emergency access road. The access road would be a less expensive option for the city to help achieve faster response times and eliminate the need for a fire station up on the mesa, he said. The board would like to have a say in how their community’s funds are used, such as an effort to bring reclaimed water to the mesa and other smaller enhancement projects.

Ellis said $1 million of the community’s FBA funds already went toward building the Pacific Highlands Ranch station.

Muñoz said the city has some funds identified at this time but it is not enough to complete the project: “But again, we are very early in this process.”

Lewis said the city’s planning department does not have a cost estimate for this fire station, and any cost would depend on a variety of factors: “DIF could be used as a source of funding.”

Since 2014, the city has opened six new fire stations to fill emergency response gaps, including the new University City fire station that opened last year. Five more stations are in the planning stages including one in City Heights. Residents in the Fairmont community of City Heights fought a similar effort against building the station near MSCP-designated lands in the Chollas Creek watershed.

Del Mar Mesa resident Lisa Ross, vice-chair of Sierra Club San Diego, said she could not protest more strongly on behalf of the local chapter, which has a long history of advocacy for protection of San Diego’s endangered habitat preserves and enforcement of the city’s MSCP. Ross said building a station there would be “one more bad precedent allowing the city to abuse protected habitat”.

“It’s hard to imagine a worse place than Shaw Valley in Del Mar Mesa for this project if we care about San Diego’s rare wildlife,” Ross said.