Planning board says concerns regarding Carmel Valley greenbelt project have yet to be addressed by city

The Torrey Hills Community Planning Board continues to work toward creating a greenbelt on a dirt lot on Ocean Air Drive. Photo/Karen Billing

By Karen Billing

Toward the end of 2013, Torrey Hills Community Planning Board members thought they were finally going to be able to get going on a much-delayed project to convert a dirt lot in their community to a greenbelt. The money is in the budget and they found a way to expedite the project for a cheaper cost through privatization, taking the project back from the city.

But now it is looking like that isn’t exactly a done deal.

“We’re trying to provide residents of Torrey Hills with a nice park and get rid of this blight but it seems like every time our consultant turns around we’ve got another roadblock,” said board member Brad Fagan.

The major questions surrounding the project are why is it taking so long and why does it cost so much?

After working with consultant Mitch Berner of Public Solutions, the planning board discovered that to build the project privately would not only be cheaper but would take less time — 488 fewer days.

Privatization would allow them to begin in October 2014 rather than September 2015 and save $132,000 of the city’s $441,000 budget. The money — from Torrey Hills donations and maintenance assessment district (MAD) funds — has been in the budget since 2007.

In November the planning board approved spending $290,000 and entering a reimbursement agreement with the city, to ensure money not used on the greenbelt can be returned for use in other areas of the community.

But planning board members say that it appears that their plan is not being supported by District 1 Councilmember Sherri Lightner and that the city aims to use the entire budget on the improvement.

Lightner and the rest of city council are currently on legislative break and could not be reached for comment by presstime.

At a Dec. 17 MAD meeting, member Guy Ravad questioned the city staff on how they could settle the reimbursement agreement and get the project built on their terms.

“I don’t want the budget interpreted as that’s what we’re going to build,” Ravad said. “The budget should reflect our maximum cost, it’s not an endorsement of project costs.”

The site in question is at the crest of East Ocean Air Drive, a dirt lot under power lines that Ravad said would be unremarkable save for its views of the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. There are many restrictions on the site as not only does it have to remain an SDG&E easement, but it is also protected as environmentally-sensitive land as part of the city’s Multi-Habitat Planning Area.

The design plan is simple and the bare minimum because of all the limitations — the space will be refreshed with native plants, stacked boulders and a decomposed granite walking trail.

Ravad is concerned that the city wants to spend the entire budget “to show us how to do an outhouse for the cost of a mansion.”

“The planning board doesn’t want to spend $450,000 on nothing,” said member Guy Ravad. “It looks like a flat dump site. We want to make it look good, but we don’t want to spend half a million dollars on this.”

The hope is that Lightner will come to the planning board this month to discuss the plan for the site, which the board has yet to see.

City representatives at the MAD meeting said that the money in the budget is being used like a bank account and they draw from it as needed — so far some has been taken out for biological studies and engineering.

But Ravad said there is a trust issue and the board is concerned that the community might not ever see those leftover funds.