Rarely are San Diegans afforded the opportunity to peek behind the scenes at how developments wind their way through the government process, but San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre is doing his utmost to lift up the skirt on what he says is fast becoming “the privatization of government decision-making in San Diego.”
Aguirre, a native San Diegan and long-time thorn in the side of local government, says the proof-at least in the case of one big-ass housing development proposed for the bucolic North County communities of Bonsall and Twin Oaks Valley-is in the subpoenaed documents and depositions he is compiling for a legal challenge to the county Board of Supervisors' approval in July 2001 of new district boundaries.
The ongoing lawsuit, which alleges that four supervisors secretly mapped out the redistricting plan, was filed in October 2001 on behalf of C. Anthony Valladolid, a Latino activist. The suit suggests that Supervisor Bill Horn, who represents the North County, told his colleagues in closed session that he wanted Escondido and its sizable Latino population out of his 5th District and into Supervisor Pam Slater's 3rd District.
In return, Horn scooped up the predominantly white enclaves of Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch and Carlsbad. Slater was the sole dissenter in the redistricting vote.
“All I remember is Supervisor Slater had a fit,” Horn recounted during a rough-and-tumble deposition he gave earlier this month in the redistricting case.
She wasn't the only one. The folks at Stonegate Development, an Orange County development firm, weren't exactly doing cartwheels, either. Since the summer of 2000, Stonegate has tried to gain county approval for a 434-home development packaged into five “villages” on about 2,000 acres in the scenic Merriam Mountains, with about 70 percent of the land left undeveloped. Named for the area's early settlers, the site is teeming with wildlife-deer, bobcats, coyotes-and has many defenders in the North County.
But it is little more than a battleground at the moment, and Aguirre's trademark tenacity-his detractors would call it obnoxiousness-has opened a rare window into the machinations of the development process. According to internal Stonegate documents subpoenaed by Aguirre:
In June 2000, Stonegate makes its pitch to county Planning Director Gary Pryor and Regional Planner Susan Porter. During the meeting, Prior reminds Stonegate executives that the county is in the midst of revising its General Plan-known as Plan 2020, a roadmap of sorts that determines allowable housing densities throughout the county's 668-square-mile domain based on anticipated population growth. Planners pull out a map to review Stonegate's site.
“We were aghast!” wrote Stonegate President Gordon Youde to affected property owners and land broker David Shibley in a letter dated June 14, 2000. “The map designates the entire Merriam Mountains as one dwelling unit for forty acres! ... This plan amounts to the most massive confiscation of land and redistribution of wealth since the Russian revolution!”
Nope, not happy campers. Subsequent meetings with Horn's former land-use aide, Chris Brown (reportedly now working in the private sector) brought some good news for Stonegate (“... expect changes before Plan 2020 becomes law,” Youde quotes Brown as saying), but meetings with the advisory boards, known as sponsor groups, in Bonsall and Twin Oaks Valley did not go as planned.
In the following months of 2000, opposition to Plan 2020 begins in earnest, with Shibley making the rounds to the various sponsor groups and espousing the Stonegate mantra: lower densities in the area will destroy land values and hurt Ma and Pa Citizen. In September of that year, a group calling itself Save Our Land Values (SOLV) begins to sing the property-rights tune. News accounts make note of SOLV's membership-primarily developer interests-but in a Nov. 14, 2000 letter from Stonegate's Youde, property owners learn a bit more.
“Without the extraordinary efforts of... SOLV, the local sponsor groups would have already protected their interests at the expense of your property rights and values,” Youde said in the letter. “SOVL (sic) has had an impact at slowing Plan 2020.”
Added Youde: “Stonegate Development has been the biggest financial contributor to SOLV to date.” He also suggests property owners contribute a “suggested” $300 each to SOLV “to help fund political activities and defray expenses.” Checks, he wrote, should be sent to Jack Orr, the region's elder statesman of political consultants. In the letter, Youde also states that through “the efforts of SOLV and actions behind the scenes at the Board of Supervisors level we have opened the door for input to correct the disastrous land use designations placed on your property by the Sponsor groups.”
In his deposition, Horn remained steadfast in his denials that anything happened “behind the scenes.” Regarding SOLV, Horn swears: “I did not agree with the group.... I did not like their tactics. I just thought they were really objecting to the process rather than trying to work with the process.”
On Dec. 13, 2000, Youde wrote to property owners again, confiding, “We have expected all along to be turned down by the local planning group. They are simply NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups out to protect their interests, which they perceive as being served by denying any project that they believe would add to the traffic in their area.... At this point in time, Stonegate Development is the premier entity capable of countering Plan 2020 and getting projects approved prior to the enactment of Plan 2020.”
The following month, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously agrees to scrap its Plan 2020 and begin anew. This time, the board creates yet another layer of review, something called an Interest Group, which is stacked with development interests and will work alongside the already established Steering Committee.
Stonegate is giddy. “PLAN 2020 DERAILED!” screams a Feb. 28, 2001 letter from Youde to property owners (15 are represented by the Stonegate project). “This was an important battle victory,” Youde wrote. “It is not the whole war, but it did delay the process and provide us a window of opportunity to move our project forward.”
Youde notes that “the county planning department came down very hard on our application in retribution for our spoiling their plans for Plan 2020.” He wrote that the rejection by planning staff and the Twin Oaks Valley Sponsor Group will lead to resubmission of an expanded version of the project-from 1,911 acres to 2,323 acres.
“By withdrawing the original... submittal we are able to sell the plan directly to the Supervisors on a one-on-one basis and insure (sic) political support before we start back through the staff-level process,” Youde wrote.
The proposal, known as Montéchez, would be shown to supervisors, Youde wrote, in a “Star Wars quality presentation.”
Adds Youde, ominously: “We have consulted with our investment committee, and they have agreed that if we are able to gain the support of three of the five Supervisors based upon our presentation, they will consider that as sufficient evidence of project viability....”
The letter also includes a postscript, which reads in part: “Support Bill Horn! Without Supervisor Bill Horn and his strong advocacy of property rights, we would have no chance at all.... We are supporting Mr. Horn to the maximum extent permitted under the law.”
In his deposition, Horn acknowledged receiving a political contribution from Youde and attending a subsequent fundraiser at which Stonegate executives had purchased two tables, but he insisted, “I did not give them any indication that I supported their project.... I thought it was well planned out.... I do appreciate the fact they did it.”
In a June 1, 2001, letter, Youde talks about enlisting Cal State University, San Marcos, to designate the Merriam Mountains project “a model smart growth community.” He said that Stonegate also “followed the Supervisors suggestions” to increase the square-footage of a proposed technology center “to increase the amount of employment we can accommodate.
“The Tech Center... is politically and economically desirable on its own, but it is also the tail that wags the dog of the overall Merriam Master Plan.”
With the redistricting vote fast approaching, Youde fires off another letter, dated June 22, 2001: “Our political consultants will be working behind the scenes putting pressure on the Supervisors and staff to permit us to commence processing.”
The following month, the redistricting brouhaha reaches the boiling point, with Horn and Roberts teaming up on a weeks-old district map that is approved 4-1, sending years worth of work to the ash bin.
A month later, Youde writes to property owners again, and he's much more upbeat: “We have now been working on the Merriam project for 18 months. We have been beating at the door relentlessly. At first, the door did not even acknowledge our blows. But the blows are beginning to tell now and we can see the boards bending and the nails popping.”
In February, a month after Horn has stepped down as board chairman, he delivers a “State of North County” speech. In it, he laments, “In a recent case, a North County developer was required to give 70 percent of his land for open space, and that's just to get the permit! We keep compromising and giving more and more of our land-yet the so-called ‘environmentally concerned' attorneys keep suing. It's time to stand up to the litigation arm of the no-growth advocates.”
Since then, Aguirre has deposed numerous witnesses, including a former land-use aide to Supervisor Greg Cox, who acknowledged that he was working for MNA Consulting, a local land-use advocacy firm, while still employed by the county. The aide, Brice R. Bossler, admitted using vacation time and evenings-with, he says, county knowledge-to review information on the Stonegate project. Since Sept. 1, he has been vice president of planning and policy for MNA, an outfit whose principals include Laurie J. McKinley, wife to political insider Mike Madigan, who recently resigned as San Diego ballpark district czar.
Meanwhile, the Stonegate project is being revamped, but where it is no one would say. Youde, reached at his Laguna Hills office, says he has been subpoenaed by Aguirre and declined comment. The county isn't commenting publicly on anything related to the redistricting lawsuit.
As such, Aguirre gets the last word: “This is exactly what you want. You see, now it's not the environmentalists fighting amongst themselves; it's the thieves. Now the thieves are fighting amongst themselves. That makes for a great case. Now, I just have to sit back and say, ‘Well, one of them is lying.'”