Clews Ranch appeal of Cal Coast Academy approval not yet resolved

The San Diego Planning Commission has delayed its decision until Aug. 27 on the Clews Horse Ranch appeal of the proposed Cal Coast Academy school, which would be near the ranch and the Carmel Valley Restoration and Enhancement Project (CVREP) Trail.

Cal Coast, a specialized school for 75 students, would like to build a 5,340-square-foot classroom building next to the 140-year-old white home on the property.

In April, the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board made no recommendation to be forwarded to the city, failing to reach a majority in a 5-4 vote with two abstentions in support of the school. The city’s Development Services Department’s Hearing Officer approved the project in May, and the Clewses filed an appeal to the planning commission.

On July 30, a motion was made to deny the Clews Horse Ranch appeal and approve Cal Coast Academy, but it got a 3-2, vote with Commissioners James Whalen and Anthony Wagner voting in opposition. As Commissioner Douglas Austin had been absent and had not yet watched the two hours and 40 minutes of testimony from the week before, he could not vote on the motion, and Commissioner Susan Peerson had recused herself, leaving only five members to vote. A majority of four commissioners was needed to carry a vote.

Chairman Tim Golba said the commission faces the challenge of having two “wonderful” sides, a school and a horse ranch. Borrowing from an Old West reference, he said neither side is a black hat: “We’ve got a pair of white hats.” He said it was a shame that these two entities could not come to terms.

Instead, there is a “fundamental disconnect” — Cal Coast believes the rural site will benefit students and not affect the horse ranch, while the Clewses believe that a noisy, invasive school use so close to their riding arena will threaten their livelihood and poses a safety risk.

Cal Coast attorney Matt Peterson said they have a comprehensive list of “voluntary neighborly measures,” from capping the school at 75 students and addressing the sensitivity of the horses next door by using no outside alarms, bells or public address system, and not having recess and PE. Cal Coast will also limit school traffic on the small dirt access road, Clews Ranch Road, by shuttling students to and from campus to the CVREP parking lot on Carmel Country Road and maintaining the 10 miles per hour speed limit.

The school has even proposed building a 300-foot-long, 12-foot-high wall and planting 30 extra-large hedges to provide a buffer between the two sites, with Cal Coast offering the ranch $40,000 to construct it.

The Clewses refused the offer.

When asked by Commissioner Theresa Quiroz whether the wall would make a difference if Cal Coast built it anyway, Christian Clews said it would not: “They are not compatible uses. It’s not the right location for that school.”

The commissioners had several questions regarding fire safety.

As Peterson explained, the new classroom building will be a “hardened shell,” with all structural walls made of insulated concrete. The building will use fire-safe dual-pane windows and metal mesh screens, and be fully outfitted with a sprinkler system. Cal Coast will also run a water line to the site and install a fire hydrant, and has agreed to cancel school when there is a Red Flag Alert in the coastal area.

“All of the property’s architecture and brush management plan has been reviewed by development services and the fire department, and both have concluded that it meets and exceeds the requirements under the code for fire protection,” said John Fisher, DSD development project manager.

One of the Clewses’ main concerns is evacuations in the event of a fire, as there is only one access road. Students, staff and horses all trying to evacuate could be “disastrous” on the small road, according to the Clewses’ attorney, Kevin Johnson.

There is a second emergency access point out to Tang Road and Carmel Creek Road but as Johnson said, the Clewses have no obligation to grant access to that road to the school and no reason to “facilitate a project that would essentially run them out of business.”

Another concern about the school’s access is that Clews owns the parking lot on Carmel Country Road — it was given to the city as an easement for public use of the CVREP Trail. Clews said it is heavily used during the time of school drop-off and pick-up.

“If the project goes through, now you’re impacting residents of Carmel Valley that use that lot so they can enjoy the CVREP Trail,” Clews said.

When a proposed Neighborhood 8 park is built on Tang Road, the easement will be vacated so the lot will no longer be there. The school does not have a contingency plan for when that lot goes away, Clews said.

Golba said he heard the testimony about the school’s impact on the horses, about them being spooked and causing injuries to riders, but he still did not think the school could have that big of an impact on the ranch.

“Honestly, the existing location of the ranch is not exactly a quiet pasture or meadow out in Lake Cuyamaca. The Cal Coast campus is literally sitting on the freeway — you can reach out and touch it as you drive by,” Golba said, noting that the ranch is under the flight path for jets from Miramar, and there are trucks rumbling and horns honking on the freeway.

“(Noise) is a fixture of your environment whether Cal Coast comes in or not … The students are going to be sitting inside a bomb shelter with no acoustics — how is the school a new threat that you’re not dealing with already?”

Clews said that jets and freeway noise are relatively far away; it’s the sudden noises of the school’s day-to-day activity, just 15 feet away from the riding arena, that will have the biggest effect. He said the intensification of use would force trainers at his ranch to leave and undermine everything he’s built in the past 10 years.

“It’s not the right place for it. It should be used for a single-family residence,” Clews said. “This will put me out of business.”

Vice Chair Stephen Haase said he struggled with why the location is so necessary to build this school and how the school’s mission is served by such an isolated location.

“There’s no synergy between the open space uses, and we’re building the Berlin Wall out there. …The students have to shelter in place, and they don’t get to have any outdoor activities,” Haase said.

Cal Coast Academy founder Jan Dunning asserted her belief that the location is ideal for a country-style school. Dunning noted that the students will get PE off site, and that because of the school’s flexible scheduling, many enrolled students are pursuing professional athletic careers, so their training is considered independent study PE.

Dunning said that the school serves an unfortunately growing population of students who are anxiety-ridden and stressed about attending large schools.

“Our environment is relaxed and intimate, with a 6:1 student teacher ratio. The students get the individualized attention they need,” Dunning said. “With the TLC, closeness and support we offer … they do beautifully.”