By Karen Billing
In a split 6-4 vote, the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board recommended final approval of the St. John Garabed Armenian Church, planned for El Camino Real (near San Dieguito Rd., just north of Carmel Valley and west of Fairbanks Ranch).
More than 50 members of the church came to show support for their project, all dressed in white, and they erupted into cheers when the positive vote came down, just after 10 p.m. on the board’s packed agenda.
City staff has recommended approval of the church and it will go before the city planning commission for a decision on Oct. 30.
Plans for the 13.4-acre property include a 350-seat church in the traditional Armenian architectural style with an emphasis on height, stone materials and capped by a pointed dome. The entire church campus includes a youth recreation center, a 500-seat multi-purpose hall and a cultural/educational building with classrooms for religious instruction such as Sunday School.
The church is proposing to build on only 4.23 acres of the site, leaving the rest of the land to be preserved. The property borders sensitive, protected lands in the city’s Multiple Species Conservation Program as well as the Gonzales Canyon.
All of the necessary wildlife agencies have signed off on the project.
Board member Christian Clews said he is “pretty familiar with the dirt,” having grown up in the area and ridden the land on horseback since the 1970s. He was strongly in favor of the church, which he feels will enhance the area and is an improvement of past developments that have been proposed there. He liked that the church is restricting development to the mesa top and staying out of the more sensitive habitats.
“The area they’re disturbing has never been a sensitive land issue; they’re not encroaching into (the sensitive area),” Clews said. “And they are restoring 1.6 acres of wetland, fixing what had been disturbed.”
Board member Brian Brady echoed Clews’ endorsement.
“The architecture is beautiful and I think they’ve done an impressive job of respecting the sensitive habitat and focusing the development to the most logical area,” he said.
The four votes against the project were board members Anne Harvey, Nancy Novak, Jonathan Tedesco and Debbie Lokanc.
One of the biggest areas of concern for the dissenting board members was the height and mass of the church in that area of the San Dieguito River Park. The height of the church is 85 feet to the top of the dome and 93 feet to the top of the cross. The three accompanying buildings are all 30 to 40 feet tall.
The land is zoned agricultural, and included in the zoning is an allowance to increase building heights when setbacks are increased, which the developer has done.
“It just seems oversized for the area,” said Tedesco. “I think it’s beautiful … It’s unfortunate you couldn’t come up with something that was more in harmony with the serenity of the surrounding area and other land uses.”
Harvey, a longtime Carmel Valley resident like Clews, has fought hard over the years to preserve valuable open space in the area.
“It’s really hard to look at mass on the land when it’s supposed to be a break in development. That land was supposed to be relief from urbanization and instead it’s filling up with large, essentially institutional uses,” Harvey said.
St. John Garabed members believe their intent is to complement the river valley and to be good stewards of the open space, preserving everything that makes Carmel Valley a great place to live, said spokesman Harry Krikorian.
The project’s goals are not only to build a place of worship for a congregation of 1,000, but also to preserve sensitive biological and scenic corridors.
“We’ve worked very hard to achieve this, with 9.18 acres preserved and restored,” said Kathi Riser, a senior land use consultant with The Atlantis Group.
Armenians first came to San Diego in 1920 and many of them now live in the Carmel Valley area.
St. John Garabed purchased the property in 2008 with the hope of fulfilling a dream for a new church campus—the members have outgrown their North Park facility, which they have inhabited since 1977.
Plans for the Carmel Valley church were submitted in 2011, and Krikorian said they have encountered “unfathomable delays.” They finally completed their environmental impact report in September.
“This project means a great deal to the Armenian community of San Diego,” Krikorian said. “After six years, we’re ready to realize our dream.”
One hurdle was the access driveway. Initially, the driveway was located at the property’s mid-point, but the church could not work out a deal with the neighboring Evangelican Formosan Church to provide access to the church through their site.
As a result the driveway is on the bottom of the slope, a right-in-right-out-only access point on El Camino Real.
Carmel Valley Planning Board Chair Frisco White’s issue with the project was the encroachment into their setbacks. He said he doesn’t like to see variances when a project has the ability to get rid of them and said he would vote for the project as long as the architect considered every way to move the proposed youth center building out of the setback.
Architect Dennis Hyndman said they have buried the front of the building and pulled it back as tight as they could into the setback to avoid encroaching into the Multiple Habitat Protection Area. Hyndman said the building is also positioned as it is to leave space for emergency vehicle access.
Riser said they have an agreement with the neighboring lot regarding the setback — the adjacent four-acre lot is vacant, with no design plans yet completed.
The phasing of the project will be driven by finances — the campus will not be built all at once. It’s likely the church or hall building would come first, Krikorian said.
Next April is the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. St. Garabed had hoped to break ground before that 100-year anniversary, if possible, and a special memorial will be built on the church site to honor the victims.
At the beginning of the board meeting, Harvey proposed continuing the item as the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority had not had time to review the final environmental impact report. In a 4-6 vote, Harvey’s motion to continue the project failed.
Clews argued that the meeting had been well publicized and the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) was available a week earlier. He noted that the room was filled with church supporters, but no representative from the JPA (Joint Powers Authority).
“It’s important as board members that we represent the community,” Clews said. “They’re here, and they’re prepared.”