Del Mar Mesa residents oppose using protected open space for fire station

The proposed fire station off Carmel Mountain Road, near Gallop Crest Court.

Del Mar Mesa community members continue to push back against a proposed fire station on environmentally-sensitive land.

The proposed site is an open canyon off Carmel Mountain Road, near the entrance to the Alta Del Mar community on Gallop Crest Court and east of the intersection with Carmel Country Road.

“Bottom line, building a fire station on environmentally-sensitive open space that would mainly serve neighboring communities would forever alter the look and feel of the Del Mar Mesa, an area that is regularly used by residents who come from all over the county seeking the very habitat they are looking to bulldoze,” said Del Mar Mesa resident Jeff Tibaldi.

To build the station, the city is targeting a Del Mar Mesa lot that it acquired from Pardee Homes in 2019. 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.”

Community members and the Del Mar Mesa Planning Board have questioned how this station could be allowed to be built and fear they will be left out of the process until it is a done deal. The Shaw Valley Wildlife Coalition and Alta Del Mar Homeowners Association have hired an attorney to represent their interests and protect the land from development.

Earlier in the year, the city’s engineering and capital programs team completed a site survey at the proposed location. The station is proposed to be at least 11,400 square feet, a two-story structure accommodating one fire engine with room to accommodate future growth.

To build a station in the middle of the open canyon, the site would have to be graded flat. This would involve raising the building pad six feet up to street level in the front of the building and constructing a retaining wall behind the building where the canyon would need to be filled in.

Tibaldi said an approximate layout of the building pad is between two vernal pools and takes up the entire width of the canyon, completely eliminating one of only three natural wildlife corridors connecting Carmel Mountain Preserve through Shaw Valley to Los Peñasquitos Canyon.

“The Del Mar Mesa Planning Board is against this project and has already provided an alternative solution that would be a much cheaper and more appropriate to adequately serve the community,” Tibaldi said. “This alternative solution would involve upgrading an existing emergency road from Fire Station #47 (the Pacific Highlands Ranch station) that would connect directly to the Del Mar Mesa which has always been part of the community plan.”

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.

According to Mónica Muñoz, media services manager for the San Diego Fire Department, the location selected is really the only option that is feasible to use as a spot to build a fire station and be within the desired response time criteria. The goal is for the fire department to arrive at a scene within seven and a half minutes.

“There really is no other location in the vicinity that would work,” she said.

Historically the city has spent about $15 million to build a fire station. Currently, the Del Mar Mesa community has $8 million in available facilities benefit assessment (FBA) funds, also known as developer impact fees, with about $5.2 to $6 million left to be collected from the few remaining undeveloped lots.

“It’s very obvious the fire department is laser-focused on building this fire station on environmentally-sensitive land in order to access our FBA funds, so it’s a money grab,” Tibaldi said. “Despite the fact that, according to 2020 incident reports, the vast majority of response calls would come from neighboring communities outside of Del Mar Mesa.”

In March, 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. He 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.

Chatten Brown has stated that should the city decide to move forward with development, they must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), as the project will have significant impacts.

The Sierra Club also weighed in April with a letter to Mayor Todd Gloria and San Diego City Council, also requesting a full EIR and opposing the taking of MSCP property: “MSCP land should be sacrosanct and protected in perpetuity.”

“Del Mar Mesa, where this proposed fire station is to be located is some of the most important ecological property in the county,” stated the letter signed by Peter A. Anderson and George Courser of Sierra Club San Diego. “For decades Sierra Club San Diego has fought to establish and protect a preserve at Del Mar Mesa… The club strongly opposes any intrusion or diminution of this preserve.”

The station is not officially a city capital improvement project yet so Muñoz said nothing further has transpired at this point. It is not known when there would be a decision regarding an EIR.

“This station isn’t fully funded and the decision as to whether to move ahead rests with the mayor and council,” Muñoz said. “It’s very early in the process and we are years away from construction.”

A similar fight is ongoing in City Heights with a fire station proposed on environmentally- sensitive land adjacent to an MSCP area between Fairmount and Euclid Avenues. The Sierra Club, Chollas Creek Coalition and neighborhood groups like the Webster Community Council have all opposed the station and requested a full EIR. The latest cost estimate for the new City Heights station was $22.3 million.