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Uncommon coalition plans San Diego's future

There could be no two people in San Diego farther apart in their views regarding development of the northern part of San Diego than we are.

We have spent the better part of this decade in a prolonged and high-pitched public argument over habitat preservation, community design and housing density.

But, there is one thing that we whole-heartedly agree on: Proposition M is good for the environment, good for families and good for San Diego.

Proposition M is the result of an 18 month effort between San Diego's leading environmental and planning groups and Pardee Homes to design one of the last new communities in the city, Pacific Highlands Ranch in the Future Urbanizing Area just east of Carmel Valley.

If approved by the voters, this historic agreement will end a grinding ten-year trench war over these last precious planning areas.

But, just as the benefits contained in the agreement reached here are great, so are the risks for Pardee and for San Diego's environmental leadership. For one of San Diego's largest homebuilders, designing a community around habitat and open space is a radically different way of doing business.

No one has sold houses built from an environmental neighborhood plan before. And environmentalists and planners, who chance getting tarred as "green" Benedict Arnolds to their constituencies, have put the success or failure of the regional wildlife system (MSCP) on the line.

The ground rules for the negotiations were set by a broad base of planning, public advocacy and environmental representatives, including Sierra Club, Endangered Habitats League, League of Women Voters, Carmel Valley Planning Board and Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. This is certainly a first in a city where environmental advocacy groups normally have to weigh-in at a show down at City Council after a plan is presented.

The result of the Pacific Highlands Ranch planning process is a walkable village plan that concentrates development at the center to encourage pedestrian activity. More than half of the project remains recreational and habitat preserve open space, including the restoration of a 1300-acre wildlife corridor between Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve and the San Dieguito River Valley, and 15 miles of trails. This is the type of planning that prevents urban sprawl and at the same time completes the important regional wildlife linkages that make MSCP work.

But, the big prize in Proposition M is the Neighborhood 8A mesa atop Carmel Mountain, undeniably the city's and Pardee's crown jewel. Home to Southern California's rarest species of plants and animals, the 390-acre planning area has been ground zero for the city's most explosive environmental battles. As prized for its potential prime ocean view lots as for its almost mystical draw to hikers, horsemen and meditators, a five-minute stay on the mesa produces dreamy eyes in people from both of our worlds.

For almost 20 years, Pardee poured enormous resources into several plans to build homes with spectacular views to the Pacific and Torrey Pines State Park on Carmel Mountain. With the passage of Proposition M, those 155 acres will become the Carmel Mountain Reserve annex to Torrey Pines State Park at no taxpayer cost, creating a living museum of Southern California habitat that includes mesa, lagoon, canyon and Torrey Pines.

No less vital to the MSCP than Carmel Mountain is the north/south wildlife corridor that Pardee literally will create and restore to a native state. This corridor, covering an area larger than Balboa Park, will link Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve to the San Dieguito River Valley, a connection that presently is blocked by agricultural land. If the taxpayers had to buy the land preserved in this plan, it would cost them over $160 million.

The alternative to the Pacific Highlands Ranch plan is sprawling tract mansions. MSCP preserve land would remain in private hands with no guarantees for public access, the essential north/south corridor could not be created and Carmel Mountain would be covered with homes.

If Proposition M fails, so does MSCP.

The steady advocacy by the Mayor for preservation of the Carmel Mountain mesa, for implementation of MSCP and for protection of property rights played no small part in this peace treaty.

Community planners and environmentalists understood that they had to participate in a reality based and comprehensive planning process with property owners, while Pardee painfully came to the realization that the Carmel Mountain mesa must be preserved.

There is no way to overstate the significance of this peace treaty. The process has had a profound effect at almost every level at Pardee Homes. One only has to listen to managers talking to employees about wildlife corridor restoration and trail design. By the same token, environmentalists who took part in this process are far more articulate about economic realities like market demand, housing supply and land costs.

And so, Proposition M is supported by an uncommon array of groups, including the Sierra Club, Endangered Habitats League, Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, California Native Plant Society, five communitiy planning boards and the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

For us, the Pacific Highlands Ranch planning experience produced something that we thought impossible. Although we see the world through different colored glasses, we found common ground somewhere along the way in these tough negotiations.

We hope that with the passage of Proposition M, planning America's Finest City into the next century will reflect what this uncommon coalition did here.

Mike Madigan is Senior Vice-President of Pardee Homes Lisa Ross is a writer and a Sierra Club member

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