The Temecula Planning Commission voted 5-0 to recommend approval of a densely-packed housing development for the foothills west of Old Town following a roughly four-hour meeting Wednesday, Nov. 15.
The project, dubbed Altair, would bring roughly 3,000 to 4,000 new residents to the city. There would be as many as 1,750 residential units, businesses, parks, open space and an elementary school occupying a collective 270 acres in the foothills.
Proponents of the project have cited the need for housing in the area and an increase in business in nearby Old Town as some of the reasons the project could be a boon to the city.
Critics have pointed to several “significant and unavoidable” impacts in an environmental impact report that include air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and traffic. They’ve also expressed concern on the project’s possible impact on mountain lion migration.
Presentations give picture of project
The meeting began with a presentation from senior planner Matt Peters, who went over the specifics of the project as well as details from an environmental impact report.
Peters said that of the 270 acres, 87 acres will be conserved open space; 60 acres will be trails, parks, community spaces and other non-conservation open space; seven acres would be devoted to the elementary school; four acres would be used for a nature center pad and 113 acres would be used for roadways and homes.
He said that the environmental impact report deemed the impacts to traffic in the area “significant and unavoidable” because it did not take into account a $51 million Temecula Parkway Interchange project aimed at fixing significant bottleneck issues on the 15 Freeway.
“In terms of the timing of when we did the draft EIR and when all of that was analyzed, the city was unable to say there was no significant impact because you couldn’t rely on something that wasn’t constructed yet,” he said.
Peters said that once the interchange project is completed, it’s expected to bring the traffic impacts from Altair below a level of significance.
Rob Honer, the project manager for Altair, also led a presentation where he touted some of the project’s features.
He talked about the project’s many trails and its large sidewalks. He said there would be nine miles of walkways.
“It’s been a huge endeavor of ours to be able to make this as walkable as possible and really be a place that people can just leave their car on the weekend and walk to Old Town, walk to the various parks, where most of what they need is right here,” he said.
Honer also talked about efforts to appease community stakeholders and environmental groups.
He said the developers would donate $500,000 to the city to evaluate locations and start building a connection point over or under Interstate 15 that would allow mountain lions to traverse back and forth between the Santa Ana and Palomar mountains for breeding purposes.
Altair would also levy an annual fee on its residents that would start at $43 per year with a 2 percent escalator for every year after that. The funds could go to environmental projects such as the mountain lion connection point or environmental clean-up efforts.
Proponents and opponents speak out
A significant portion of the meeting was spent on public comment. More than 30 people showed up either to express their support for the project or their concerns about it.
The proponents, sporting yellow buttons with the Altair logo on them, were generally members of the business community.
Opponents tended to be members of environmental groups or residents who had concerns about traffic.
Cara Lacey of the Nature Conservancy said the organization did not support the project, mostly over concerns about how much land developers had set aside as open space.
She said the conservancy was trying to arrange a meeting between environmental groups, the developer and the city of Temecula on Nov. 29 to broker a development plan that would put aside more land and save more of the natural linkages where animals travel.
“These linkages that are being impacted … are vital to both local wildlife connectivity as well as wide range species like the mountain lion, the badger and many others, for large ranging and regional connectivity,” she said.
Pam Nelson of the Sierra Club said that when she first learned about Altier, she thought she could support it since it was a non-sprawl, walkable community. However, after learning about the impacts to wildlife corridors as well as traffic, she changed her mind.
“We’re told that 25 years ago a plan was made for this area so it must be followed,” she said. “But a lot has happened in the Temecula Valley in 25 years. Even in the last five years when this project was described, traffic, water, population, wildlife habitat and the quality life in this region has dramatically changed. So we can’t do what we’ve always done. If we do, we’ll get more traffic, poorer quality of life and very little wildlife.”
Gene Wunderlich, vice president for government affairs for the Southwest Riverside County Association of Realtors, was in support of the project. He talked about the housing crisis and how the limited availability of homes in the Temecula area was driving up prices.
“What that impacts is workforce housing, we’re not talking about affordable housing, we’re talking about workforce housing that applies to teachers, police, fire, veterans and our own children who can no longer afford to live in the city that they were raised in,” he said. “That’s terrible.”
Wunderlich said the project and similar projects are what young adults are looking for, particularly as they transition out of apartment life and look for their first homes.
“They need walkable communities, bikeable communities, areas where they have schools so their kids can walk to school,” he said. “They don’t want to maintain a huge yard, they don’t want to maintain five acres, they want a project exactly like Altair is proposing to put together.”
A unanimous decision
After the public comment session was over, Commissioner Ron Guerriero tried to address concerns raised during public comment.
He said that the Altair specific plan is one of plans that has come before the planning commission in recent years — Wolf Creek, Harveston and Roripaugh Ranch started as specific plans.
“Guess what those things interrupted?” Guerriero said. “Nature. But we had to address it and we had to work with it. And it’s working.”
He said he anticipated that Altier, if it’s approved by the council, may take some before it’s actually built out. That was the case for Roripaugh, which is still not at full build out more than a decade after its approval.
“What we all don’t like to see, and I’ll agree, is growth,” Guerriero said. “But we all moved here, didn’t we?”
Shortly before 9 p.m., the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval by the city council.