Open space encroachment biggest issue for planned Carmel Valley church project

PHOTO COURTESY: Rendering of the proposed St. John Garabed church on El Camino Real.

By Karen Billing

Planners behind the new St. John Garabed Armenian church continue to discuss the details of their project with the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board as they await further review from the city and an environmental impact report. The biggest concern for the project, located off El Camino Real behind the Evangelican Formosan Church (just north of Carmel Valley, southwest of Rancho Santa Fe and east of Del Mar), is the encroachment into protected open space.

The church’s proposal exceeds the 25 percent development allowable within the city’s Multi-Habitat Planning Area. 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.

“We have compacted our development into the least sensitive part of the site,” said Marcela Escobar-Eck, principal of the Atlantis Group representing Garabed at the Nov. 7 meeting of the planning board’s regional issues committee.

She said the church’s plans preserve the area with the most sensitive habitat and their developed portion is on top of the already disturbed mesa top, a plan she said is supported by the wildlife and resource agencies.

What’s pushing the development the most into sensitive native habitat is its access road. Escobar-Eck said access to the site has long been a challenge and the developers attemped to negotiate an easement with the neighboring Formosan Church. The Formosan Church was unwilling to grant the easement so the access point will now be near the bottom of the slop on the property. A short deceleration lane will be added for the entrance to the church on El Camino Real and a short acceleration lane will be added for the right-only exit.

Carmel Valley planning board member Anne Harvey said it’s important to keep in mind that as Carmel Valley has become more built out, they are being asked more and more to build into areas that were not planned for development.

“A number of projects want to develop in open space lands,” Harvey said. “It’s up to us as a community to decide if what is proposed is worth the permanent loss of open space.”

She said that open space is not just about the wildlife corridor, but also serves as a break from urbanization and creates a community identity.

St. Garabed’s plan is for four buildings on the 13.3-acre site, including a 350-seat sanctuary, an 18,000-square-foot social hall, an 11,000-square-foot library and cultural education center and a 14,000-square-foot youth center and gym.

The architecture will reflect the tradition of Armenian churches, which includes a pointed dome and emphasis on height, rather than width.

“I’m all in favor of the church,” said Harvey. “It’s just a lot of buildings and a lot of bulk and mass in that site.”

The sanctuary is the biggest of the buildings in the plan and is 93 feet tall to the top of the cross. Escobar-Eck said they are well within their allowable height due to setbacks—they are allowed to build to a height of 111 feet.

The three other buildings are within 30 to 40 feet tall.

Board member Manjeet Ranu said the perception of the bulk and scale is a judgement call and he likes the way the applicant has planned the site.

“I think they’ve done a great job clustering the buildings. I’m always cognizant of development rights and I think they’ve done a good job preserving the parts that matter most to us but I do understand the concerns about bulk and scale.”

Ranu said the most paramount issue with the property is the wildlife corridor and the trail access to Gonzales Canyon.

“The project has met that principle goal in my mind,” Ranu said. “The key goal for me is protecting that corridor and I feel like they’re going in the right direction but we still need that environmental document.”

The environmental impact review would be a next step, although the city has not yet determined the level of review.

Harry Krikorian, a Carmel Valley resident and member of the church, said that he doesn’t see that the project negatively impacts the open space.

“We’ve created a beautiful project that complements Carmel Valley and will be something we can all be proud of,” Krikorian said.