As the land becomes more valuable for development due to scarcity, and increasing pressures to maximize returns on property investments both in the public and the private sectors, many properties,parks, and public lands we previously took for granted will be under pressure to be converted to newer cash generating developments.
As we have learned in Escondido, Big Money development forces can simply overwhelm small business and community defense funds, and thereby render them ineffective. Big Money is on the prowl for any property in San Diego that can be repurposed. The economic environment is primed for redevelopment, especially where the previous usage can be painted as a failed business or a 'water waster.'
Government spending is out of control, so all areas of non-income generating government operations are being scrutinized, and most nonessential expenses will be cut or at least reduced. Selling property is one way to fill budget shortfalls, so local governments are taking a second look at their property portfolios too.
San Diego has a multitude of high profile land use battles going on right now, from Carlsbad (Aqua Hedionda 85/15 Specific Plan) to Del Mar (One Paseo), from Escondido ( Escondido Country Club/Lilac Hills Ranch) to Mission Valley (Qualcomm/Riverwalk Golf Course Redevelopment).
The battle over the future of Webb Lake in Rancho Bernardo is a small town issue with much larger ramifications.
Conflicts over property usage are never going away. It has been around for centuries and will not be resolved in our lifetimes. Like the historic battles over land development, for railroads or highways, to grow food or feed cattle, to mine for ore or drill for oil, to build homes or industrial buildings, one of our planet's biggest challenges in our lifetime and that of our children, is and will continue to be, the Water Wars.
Especially in highly populated desert areas like San Diego.
In a small bedroom community nearby, a microcosm of the world's water shortage situation is playing out over a controversial community lake. Sitting in the middle of a 4.3 acre centerpiece park, Rancho Bernardo's Webb Lake is under attack by both redevelopment and environmental forces.
It is privately owned by the local Rancho Bernardo Business Association, who want to protect it because it lends a serene scenic ambience to the surrounding clustered businesses and office buildings. It gives the locals a place to hold community celebrations for the 4th of July, and Veterans Day. It is a place where kids can chase ducks and tease turtles and beautiful, tall straggly cranes. It is by any measure a 'treasured community asset' facing repurposing by the financial forces of change.
Webb Lake was designed as the centerpiece to the business center of one of the nation's first master planned communities, Rancho Bernardo. For the locals when they have first time visitors, it is one of the first places you go to showcase your pride in your Hometown.
In the case of the Escondido Country Club, also a centerpiece of the community originally designed for retirees, the Great Recession teamed up with the recent seven years of drought, and the resulting financial stress created a toxic atmosphere that the owners could not withstand. Exploiting the weakened immune system of the financially challenged owners, a heavyweight property speculator rushed into the void to crash the party by foreclosing on the loan, then winning a rezoning decision that will allow converting the property into a housing development.
In both cases, a collision of local interests and financial speculators has caused a great deal of social anxiety. Though water usage is common to both properties, the real issue is who has the money, the influence and the leverage, to determine the future use of properties that have had an intangible importance and only a narrow and non-essential purpose.
In Escondido, the speculator is demanding his right to make 'the highest and best use' of the land. While the community claims his plans will forever diminish the value and identity of the once prominent Country Club retirement community by flooding the old, intertwined fairways with a massive housing development. The ensuing court battles have damaged both parties while subjecting the entire community to a depressing economic collapse of property values and an ecological disaster as the abandoned golf course deteriorates from negligence.
In Rancho Bernardo, the challenge is how to justify committing large amounts of scarce groundwater to an ornamental lake that is of questionable community 'value'. Whether the costs associated with that idea should be entirely privately funded, and whether limited water supplies should be used for such narrow interests at all.
Water in San Diego is currently rare and therefore expensive, but is a necessity for all citizens and for the environment. It is something that will only become more contentious as time goes by, regardless of drought conditions, because the demands of population growth, agriculture and health maintenance simply outpace our ability to conserve and purify the limited local water resources we have available.
There are competing forces in Rancho Bernardo, battling over the lakes very existence. Some believe it has outlasted its significance, and to save precious water supplies, it should be filled in. Others are willing to fight to save it, because it is a significant symbol of their Hometown's sanctity, and identity. The lake owners have offered to fund a pump to bring groundwater up to feed the pond's appetite. Some San Diego officials have offered to contribute grant money, too.
One of the local government representatives has sided with the locals. It isn't about money, he says, it is about the local public wanting to preserve what it perceives as a 'community treasure.'
The greater need, in this case, is what the locals want, versus what they need. It's collective value supercedes it's collective cost, "it's about helping them save something they treasure," according to San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey.
As citizens, it is our obligation to manage our local world first. If we are to have any impact on the quality of our lives, we will be most effective working at the local level. How we deal with these issues in our own community reflects on how we, as a nation, can deal with the much bigger issues of the world, such as vital resource management, fighting terrorism, or helping the less fortunate.In reality, the power to affect change is vested in local policy management and political representation.
The average citizen's attention is typically focused on our their unique family needs, like the price of food, gasoline, and housing, access to health care, and advanced educational opportunities. Conflicts of income inequality and racial discrimination, and the scarcity of jobs and security, are mostly national in nature. Though local, state and national politics are always in the headlines, most people think very little about who is running for local or national office until the day of the election, if then. So when a local issue demands attention, there is often a lot of screaming and yelling about 'lack of representation' and deals being made 'behind closed doors.'
But the old saying is still true; 'All politics are local.' And I might add, all water is local too.
Thus, when local homeowners complained that the 50 year-old Escondido Country Club golf course property abutting their backyard fence was unfairly being turned into a housing tract, it wasn't surprising that most people outside of a 5 mile radius could care less. But when the issue is water usage and the severe restrictions placed on state-wide homeowners, affecting their landscaping, their personal hygiene, and their pocketbooks, THAT is a problem many people can relate to.
It is human nature to only feel pain when it hits close to home.
In Escondido, local homeowners have fought hard to preserve their 'community treasure,' while an out-of-town investor presses his attempt to extract a multimillion dollar windfall from reconstructing the entire community. Both sides claim their proposals would be better at preserving precious water.
Meanwhile, some think the Webb Lake debate is an affront to good resource management and a playground for locals at the expense of the larger county water supply. " We need to be careful with our water and manage it with a view to the future," says Jerry Hodge, a retired biology Professor, a tree hugger and an opponent of the lake's existence.
I presume he would support the third option: to sell the land and have it rezoned and redeveloped, eliminating the lake and the park altogether. The elimination of the maintenance cost, and the increased tax revenue it would generate from industrial applications would go a long way to help balance local government budgets, so look out for competing developers to enter the fray, especially if drought conditions continue to persist. Since the owners believe the lake has an essential value to the surrounding businesses and the greater community that those businesses serve, and they are apparently willing to pony up some cash to maintain it, the Lake is safe for now.
In an era of digital communications, where every bloody disaster is widely aired by international media, many local conflicts seem inconsequential when compared to world wide instability, to the threat of earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, to Jihad terror, to famine, disease, and regional wars. In many ways, our over-exposure to news and video from all corners of the world, has had a deleterious affect on our collective sensibilities about local issues. By comparison, local squabbles seem inconsequential.
But to those who are intimately affected, the local population, the continuous threat to reorganize, to remodel and change our basic community identity, to 'Redefine Our Hometown' is itself threatening and disconcerting. I understand the necessity of change, but sometimes we get so caught up in the financial benefits of change, we overlook the social and psychological damage rapid change can have on our carefully crafted community identity, and sometimes tenuous neighborhood culture.
The Webb Lake Battle is a reflection of continued pressure to turn any property or commodity that is underperforming or relatively scarce, into a new and different financial asset. These pressures will eventually put our older Hometowns, or at least many of their most identifiable icons, in the crosshairs of redefinition.
Call me old and conservative, but I believe there is tremendous value in preserving and maintaining strong community bonds, identity and stability. Keeping a sense of balance between old and new, between business and recreation, between indoor and outdoor experiences, between asphalt and nature, is a good thing for peace and tranquility, which in the end, is vital to preserve and to enhance community property values.
Call me a duck lover, but I stand against 'Redefining My Hometown!'