Council denial is third strike for ill-fated Temecula parcel
Friday, December 6th, 2013
Issue 49, Volume 17.
The City Council’s rejection of the Bella Linda project – the third land use proposal for that location – underscores the challenges that developers of the city’s few remaining vacant parcels may face in the years ahead.
"This isn’t the only location we’re going to be seeing this (dilemma)," Councilman Chuck Washington said during the Nov. 26 hearing that lasted more than two hours.
The 22.7-acre site at the northeast corner of Pechanga Parkway and Loma Linda Road has become on one of the toughest parcels to develop in the city. Two other projects that survived the development review process were never built there, and the latest proposal was reviewed four times by city planning commissioners before it was forwarded to the council for a final decision.
"It’s a tough one," City Councilman Jeff Comerchero noted as a range of concerns surfaced prior to the unanimous denial.
For decades, the location reflected south Temecula’s rural setting. The land was vacant until the late 1960s, when a ranch house, stables and sheds were built. An ornate metal arch spanned the driveway and riding lessons were offered there at one time.
Development pressures intensified and many hastily-approved subdivisions, apartments and commercial projects were authorized in the area under Riverside County’s jurisdiction. Temecula became a city in December 1989, and growth continued to surge in that area.
The Pechanga tribe opened a casino in temporary buildings in July 1995, and the complex was steadily expanded over the years into a resort, hotel, golf course and casino.
Development also exploded along Highway 79 South, which is known as Temecula Parkway within city limits. Pechanga Parkway was repeatedly widened as the casino expanded and the 1,800-home Wolf Creek subdivision was built.
In 1998, a previous Temecula council approved the construction of a senior assisted living center at the Pechanga Parkway site. That development, which would have been the first of its kind in the Temecula area, called for the construction of 141 residential units and separate buildings for offices and the care of Alzheimer’s patients.
The land was cleared and the ornate arch was removed, but that project encountered financing difficulties and it was never built.
A 2006 development plan, which sparked neighborhood controversy before it fizzled amid the subsequent recession, called for the construction of 295 apartments. Some of those apartments were intended to house residents with low or moderate incomes.
The new project was proposed last year as housing demand rebounded. The Newport Beach-based developer initially proposed 325 apartments and 49 senior-only homes. Several neighbors opposed the project at two initial hearings due to traffic concerns and the buildings’ height and density.
Planning commissioners voted 4-1 in April to recommend that the council reject the plan. The developer then proposed the construction of condominiums instead of apartments and reduced the number of units to 270. The senior component of the project remained intact. In October, the commission voted 3-1 in favor of adopting the revamped project.
A five-inch packet of documents – environmental analysis, site drawings, staff reports and other materials – was prepared for council and public review at the Nov. 26 hearing.
But revising the plan did not ease neighborhood concerns, and about a dozen audience members stood up to express their opposition during the council review.
The council echoed many of the opponents’ concerns at the hearing. Some council members said they worried that many of the condominiums would eventually become rental units, and the project might someday become an apartment complex that overshadowed the nearby senior homes.
City legal staff said there are no rules in place that would prevent condominium owners from renting their units if their families grow or they decide to move to larger homes.
Some council members said the plan did not include enough senior-oriented amenities. They also noted that some seniors might be uncomfortable using the project’s family-oriented pool and recreation center.
"Those are legitimate concerns," Patrick Richardson, the city’s director of community development, acknowledged at one point in the hearing.
Larry Markham, a Temecula land use consultant hired by the developer, countered that the plan had been fine-tuned during a series of neighborhood presentations and Planning Commission hearings.
"It was a very long process that we went through," he said. "There was a lot of give and take and we think we have a good project."
But Markham’s comments failed to sway the council, which voted 5-0 in a rare denial of a repeatedly-pitched Temecula development plan.
Washington, Comerchero and other council members noted that Temecula, which will soon reach the point where all of its large parcels have been developed, may be confronted with similar land use quandaries in the years ahead.
"I’m struggling with this. I’m struggling with the zoning and compatibility uses," Comerchero said. "This is one of these odd circumstances. We have a lot of these."
Mayor Mike Naggar said he wants to know how many apartments and condominiums Temecula has now and how many more might be in the planning stages.
Naggar noted that an aging commercial district known as the Jefferson Avenue corridor will likely become future hub of apartments and condominiums. The same may be true in a 271-acre tract west of Old Town where a developer is crafting plans to build up to 2,000 residences.
Naggar said Temecula should take a long-term look at its apartment needs rather than review such projects on a "hodgepodge" basis. That inventory and analysis will give Temecula a "game plan" to follow if a similar residential plan is proposed at the Pechanga Parkway location or at others, he said.
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