Pacific Highlands Ranch: A failed concept or failure in execution?


By Karen Dubey, PHR Resident and Airoso HOA President, and Dean Dubey, PHR Resident and Carmel Valley Community Planning Board Member (Pacific Highlands Ranch District 12)

The community of Pacific Highlands Ranch has existed for over five years. It is at an important crossroads, where decisions made now can direct it towards success or failure. Now is a crucial time to review its history and use it as a guide of how the community can move forward in order to save it from failure.

In 1998 the voters in the city of San Diego passed Proposition M, which allowed development on the land that would be called Pacific Highlands Ranch. Members of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, along with Pardee Homes and the Sierra Club were members of the working group that drafted the proposition. The vision for Pacific Highlands Ranch was for a new kind of development, one of smart growth that mirrored small towns of the past, with a main street in a town center that encouraged walking and community interaction.

But beyond the vision, decisions were made by the Carmel Valley contingent that fed on their fears of increasing traffic in their own neighborhood. To Proposition M they added limits that pegged future development of Pacific Highlands Ranch beyond its initial phase to the completion of ramps from SR-56 to I-5. To them, this would save Carmel Valley from being used by Pacific Highlands Ranch residents to get into and out of the community, along with shoppers coming from outside the area to get to the Pacific Highlands Ranch village center.

While made with good intentions, the linking of PHR to the SR-56/ I-5 freeway connectors has backfired on the community of Carmel Valley and caused some of the largest deficiencies in Pacific Highlands Ranch. Pacific Highlands Ranch residents now have to drive into Carmel Valley to do everything from shopping, to getting gas. The freeway connectors have been delayed in a myriad of issues. The community of Torrey Pines opposes them and has threatened to delay it for many years with lawsuits and studies. Pacific Highlands Ranch has become a collection of homes with no services, a suburb to the suburb next door, Carmel Valley.

When residents bought homes in Pacific Highlands Ranch, they also bought into the concept of a walkable village that was sold to them by Pardee Homes and the other smaller developers in the community. This was emphasized by the many large signs still placed in dirt lots, now looking old and faded touting “Proposed Community Library”, “Proposed Community Park”, and so on. Every sales person had their version that was sold to residents of the great community they were moving into.

In response to the sales pitch, Pacific Highlands Ranch has been filled with wonderful families all ready to fulfill this dream. The community has a great sense of small town street-by-street, where neighbors know each other, families get together for celebrations, and scores of children have the advantage of being able to bike down the road and find other children ready to play.

They play in the street, they play in the house, and they play at the HOA community pools. Where they don’t play though is at the park. Pacific Highlands Ranch does not have a single park. Not that there aren’t funds already allotted to build a park. There are, and Gonzales Canyon Neighborhood Park was originally scheduled for construction this year. The City of San Diego sits on $5.8 million that was raised by special assessments levied on homes in Pacific Highlands Ranch. But due to the bad financial situation that the City has gotten itself into, they do not want to build the park because then the City will have to spend money in the future on yearly maintenance. So the children of Pacific Highlands Ranch remain park-less.

Another community up the coast in North County, San Elijo Hills, had a similar vision for their community. Along with homes they built a main street with shopping, schools, and parks. Pacific Highlands Ranch took a different approach, probably due to the Proposition M mandate that limited growth (of homes and business). The center of Pacific Highlands Ranch will eventually be the “Pacific Highlands Ranch Village.”

Pardee Homes has been working on the plans for this Village for years. They tried to push plans for it through the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board in 2007, with no Pacific Highlands Ranch community input. Luckily a group of Pacific Highlands Ranch residents got wind of the plans and checked them out. Instead of the Village they were promised, the plan was for a hastily pieced together patchwork of standard suburban shopping centers.

Through a year of community protest and input, the residents of Pacific Highlands Ranch were able to enact small changes on the plan for the Village. The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board passed it in 2008, without a single voting member on the Board representing Pacific Highlands Ranch (this has since been amended and two board members from Pacific Highlands Ranch have been added to the original board of fifteen members). But the result is a substandard shopping center that will not live up to the vision of Proposition M.

The Village is owned by at least four separate land owners, and unfortunately the connection of these four pieces of land will be quite obvious once the construction is complete. The interconnections and walkability between them are not good. Even within the one largest piece of land, that owned by Pardee Homes, the Village is two distinct shopping areas. One is a standard suburban sprawl grocery store with large surface lot that does not conform to the smart growth walkable village concept. The second is a small 1 block main street that tries to live up to the Proposition M vision, with outdoor dining and shopping. Unfortunately even this section lacks the areas for community open space that was required by the City, and Pardee Homes counts the fire lanes towards this requirement. Pardee Homes is bringing their Pacific Highlands Ranch Village Plan to the City of San Diego Planning Commission on October 15, 2009, though it will be years until residents see any development in the Village.

Even though the Village is a reality maybe too far in the future to imagine, the streets and infrastructure around it has largely been built. This includes the main access road to the Village, Village Center Loop Road. This road was designed and built with double wide sidewalks to eventually allow the scores of pedestrians that will be walking from home to school to shopping and back. Unfortunately, due to the lack of standards by the City of San Diego, utilities have been allowed to litter it with obtrusive utility boxes. On one side of the road alone, there are twenty eight such boxes placed on the actual sidewalk (not off to the side). Utility companies continue to arrive yearly and dig up the current sidewalk to make room for more boxes, leaving the once pristine sidewalk a hodgepodge of concretes, cracks and subpar work.

The lack of services available to residents does not just hurt affluent homeowners of Pacific Highlands Ranch, but also the hundreds of families that live here as part of the San Diego Housing Commission’s Affordable Housing Program. Pacific Highlands Ranch includes three apartment communities and sixty owner-occupied units in the Airoso Townhomes that are part of this program. This dwarfs the affordable housing in the rest of the communities that make up the zip code of 92130. Carmel Valley only has one Affordable Housing apartment community, and Torrey Hills has zero. Yet not a single service outside of public schools is available in Pacific Highlands Ranch. There are no Boys and Girls Clubs, no recreation center or park, no public transportation or shopping. This is particularly a shame for the children.

Pacific Highlands Ranch is currently home to some great public schools. One is Sycamore Ridge School, part of the Del Mar Union School District. A second elementary school, part of the Solana Beach School District, is in the plans for the area of Pacific Highlands Ranch that is within that school district, but like other parts of Pacific Highlands Ranch, it too is on hold and the students must be driven to Carmel Valley for school. The third is Canyon Crest Academy, part of the San Dieguito High School District.

It is hard to call Canyon Crest Academy part of the “community” though, as its actions from concept to current functioning school, have not been community-minded. Pardee Homes tried working with the District on the school in the planning stages. From its name to its architecture the District showed no willingness to be part of the community. While an example of high test scores and excellence in education, Canyon Crest locks up its sports fields and courts, unlike neighboring SDUHSD high school two miles to the west, Torrey Pines. Without parks or community meeting areas, residents would like to make use of the fields paid for in large part from the heavy Melo-Roos taxes levied on Pacific Highlands Ranch homeowners.

Pacific Highlands Ranch is also home to what has to be arguably one of the most beautiful fire stations in the State of California, Fire Station Number 47. The fire crew there is a great addition to the community and has joined in on more than one occasion in community barbeques and events, while continuing to do their job of responding to emergencies in Pacific Highlands Ranch and beyond. In 2008, they were presented with a wonderful new ladder truck that will ultimately be paid for by Pacific Highlands Ranch Facilities Funds (Pardee Homes fronted the money to be repaid in the future). Later that same year, that truck was taken away by the City and given to the North Park neighborhood, without plans to ever return.

Within Pacific Highlands Ranch, creation has begun on a series of trails for hiking and biking. These trails were to be included within the community’s Maintenance Assessment District (MAD) for upkeep. Recently it was discovered that Pardee Homes forgot to include these trails in Proposition M, and currently plans to place their care under a future homeowners’ association (not one that already has its charter set). This raises all sorts of questions as to the guarantee of access to the public, ability of public recourse, and trail maintenance issues, not to mention the unfair monetary burden that will be placed on a select group of future residents for a community resource.

Unfortunately, Pacific Highlands Ranch has been saddled with a plethora of problems that frankly, may doom its visionary success. Of course people will live here, raise families, and be considered successful. But does that equal success for the community of Pacific Highlands Ranch as laid out and voted on by the voters of San Diego when passing Proposition M? It is now that bold moves must be made by developers, residents and our elected officials to change the direction that Pacific Highlands Ranch is moving towards.

Proposition M must amended to disconnect Pacific Highlands Ranch future growth from the SR-56/I-5 freeway connector issue. The plans for Pacific Highlands Ranch Village must be reworked by all developers to make a more unified plan that embraces smart growth and rejects suburban sprawl. And the City of San Diego must honor promises of services to its residents.

The idea for Pacific Highlands Ranch was a good one, one that attracted residents to its soil. The question is, “can Pacific Highlands Ranch be saved from conceptual failure?” We call on Mayor Jerry Sanders, Council District 1 Representative Sheri Lightner, the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, and Pardee Homes to make the bold moves necessary to make Pacific Highlands Ranch a success.