Carmel Valley subcommittee raises concerns over proposed St. John Garabed Armenian Church

By Karen Billing

The proposed St. John Garabed Armenian Church on El Camino Real is running into some issues with its location within the city’s Multi-Habitat Planning Area (MHPA), as well as its mass and intensity in a very restricted area that planners have fought hard to preserve in the San Dieguito River Valley.

The proposed church project was reviewed by the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board’s Regional Issues Subcommittee on Nov. 2 and co-chair Jan Fuchs said that the proposal exceeds the 25 percent development allowable within the MHPA. The MHPA is part of the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP), a program that preserves a network of habitat and open space throughout the county.

Pushing the development the most into sensitive native habitat is its access road. Marcela Escobar-Eck, of the Atlantis Group, said access to the site has been one of the biggest challenges and they hope to work with neighboring Evangelical Formosan Church.

“The city approved the Formosan Church knowing there was an access problem. The city needs to take some responsibility and leadership and get this resolved because it’s creating a problem with the MHPA,” Fuchs said.

Escobar-Eck said that the city has been very cooperative —“Staff does support relocation of the road,” said Bernie Turgeon, city planner— and that they were waiting to get more information before approaching the Formosan Church to find a solution that would work for everyone.

Fuchs said besides the proposed development’s proximity to the MHPA, the church’s intensity is also an issue.

Plans include an 8,740-square-foot sanctuary able to sit 350 people; an 18,090-square-foot social hall; an 11,010-square- foot education and library center; and a 13,840-square-foot gym and youth center. There will also be a parking lot with 169 spaces.

The height limit in the area is 30 feet, but structures are allowed to exceed the height limit if setbacks are increased, which the developer plans to do. The church sanctuary will be 93 feet high.

“The overall intensity is making some people uncomfortable,” Fuchs said, questioning why so many uses and buildings were planned.

Jack Hachigian, a member of the Armenian church, said it is very important for their faith to gather and maintain their culture, hence the needs for the hall and library. Beth Broussalian, a Carmel Valley resident and member of the Armenian church, said that Armenian churches typically include an athletic facility for church sports leagues, allowing them to keep their culture together and work with youth at a church level.

Turgeon said that, according to the framework plan for the area, design guidelines call for structures to be low profile and blend into the landscape.

“Our intention is to pick natural colors and materials,” said Escobar-Eck. “We’re geared toward embracing the river valley, that’s where the majority of our views will be.”

The hope is for most of the area to be restored, as the area serves as an access point to Gonzales Canyon, the canyon east of Torrey Pines High School.

Escobar-Eck said that in working with the wildlife agencies (California Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife), their position has been to preserve the lower area of the site, which has more value as a wildlife corridor and the potential to be re-vegetated.

They will contain their development to the top part of the mesa in an area that is already “disturbed,” Escobar-Eck said.

Co-chair Anne Harvey said they hear all the time from developers that land is already disturbed or that there is no native vegetation — the fact is that there can be.

“Every square foot helps in keeping that population viable,” Harvey said.

Turgeon said open space has a lot of different uses and meanings, from protected sensitive biology or landform preservation to simply providing a break from urbanization.

“Certain lands were earmarked for the MHPA, not to be just whittled away because it doesn’t look pretty,” Fuchs said.

Escobar-Eck argued that they believe there is a mapping error and that the majority of their development stays out of the MHPA, except for the road, which they would like to move if possible.

“The road is what’s driving all of this because of getting access to the site,” Escobar-Eck said.

The church, and the wildlife agencies would prefer the access road take a straight route right after the Formosan church instead of further down El Camino Real and winding through the sensitive habitat.