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Public meeting to focus on fate of San Luis Rey Downs


February 21, 2014
The fate of the San Luis Rey Downs golf course, which has been the subject of rumors that it will be sold to a mitigation bank management company and turned into riparian habitat, is uncertain. What is known is that a public meeting will be held Feb. 24, at 6 p.m., at the San Luis Rey Downs clubhouse.

It is also known the public comment period for the proposed Moosa Creek mitigation bank has been extended to March 9. The comment period was to have closed Feb. 13, but the Army Corps of Engineers determined that insufficient notice to neighboring properties had been provided and the proposal was re-released for public comment on Feb. 7.

"At this point it's very preliminary," said Army Corps of Engineers senior project manager Shanti Santulli.

"We don't know what the outcome is. No decision's been made at this time. We just want to make sure that we have all the pertinent information," said Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Greg Suderer.

Conservation Land Group, Inc., (CLG) has filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers for the Moosa Creek mitigation bank. The mitigation bank proposal for approximately 185 acres, including approximately 38 acres of wetlands and 5.75 acres of non-wetland waters, would rehabilitate and re-establish riverline and depressional wetlands and restore wetland and non-wetland riparian habitat.

"It is the restoration of flood plain, riparian, and wetland habitat along Moosa Creek and the San Luis Rey River," said WRA, Inc., biologist Amanda McCarthy.

WRA, Inc., is working with CLG on specific restoration and mitigation plans. Approval of the land as a mitigation bank would allow developers of property elsewhere to purchase mitigation credits from the mitigation bank which could be used to fulfill off-site mitigation requirements for those projects.

The decision whether to authorize the land as a mitigation bank will be based on an evaluation of the probable impact, including cumulative impacts, to the public interest, and the reasonably-expected benefits must be balanced against reasonably-foreseen detriments. The factors which will be considered include conservation, economic, aesthetic, general environmental, wetlands, cultural value, fish and wildlife value, flood hazard, flood plain, land use, navigation, shoreline erosion, recreation, water supply and conservation, water quality, energy needs, safety, and food production impacts as well as the general needs and welfare of the public.

The proposal was originally released for a 30-day public comment period on Jan. 14. Some of the comments received involved the lack of notice, so the Army Corps of Engineers made the decision to recirculate the proposal for public comment. "We want to make sure it's distributed to everybody," Santulli said.

Jeff Johnson, who lives next to the land said he never received an official notice from the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) or the Corps of Engineers.

"There may have been some official notice to somebody," Johnson said, "but I don't know where it went. It wasn't to me."

He indicated that most of the neighbors learned of the proposal through word of mouth, often from golf course users.

"The people living around it haven't been notified as they should be," said Jon Frandell, who has golfed at San Luis Rey Downs for more than 20 years. When he moved to Fallbrook as a 12-year-old in 1963, San Luis Rey Downs and the Fallbrook Golf Club were the area's golf courses.

"They've both been very beneficial to the community," he said. "I hope the community comes together and tries to save a very viable economic option that's part of our community and part of our culture."

Although Frandell is the current president of the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce, he emphasized that the chamber had not taken an official position as of Feb. 7 and that his comments were his personal opinions.

"The highest and best use is as a golf course," he said. "There's better land use of that area by keeping it a golf course than by turning it back to wetlands."

McCarthy remarked that restoration to natural habitat was the preferable option.

"This is the best use of the land," she said.

McCarthy and Frandell both agreed that the land is in a flood plain and that homes could not be built on it. Frandell noted that banks were built on the golf course to protect it from flooding and that such protection would not exist in the land's natural habitat.

"It would be flooding in," he said.

"The golf course as it is today is a wildlife preserve. We see large numbers of species out there enjoying the golf course," Johnson said.

Johnson noted that the restoration would be a multi-year construction process. "I'm not sure what good that does for the wildlife," he said.

"It is open space," Frandell said. "As a golf course it could be used as a land bank anyway."

Most mitigation plans for the area involve acquisition of land for the future San Luis Rey River Park which is planned to have active recreation, passive recreation, and biological open space within the park. The river park and the existing golf course could coexist; the Morley Field golf course in San Diego is part of Balboa Park and the Riverwalk golf course in San Diego is adjacent to the San Diego River trail.

"It's an excellent complement to the future park and to the river. I sure hope somebody listens to us," Frandell said.

Colt Vessels, whose family owns the golf course, hopes that the public understands that the family has not made a decision to sell the golf course or to close it.

"As of right now there are a lot of questions people are asking" he said. "We are entertaining different ideas. As of right now there are no plans in concrete."

That includes the land remaining as a golf course. "We could keep it as a golf course; we could sell it as a golf course. We don't know exactly," he said acknowledging a sale is a potential option. "Anything is possible. We aren't leaning towards anything in particular."

Vessels refuted claims that the golf course is not economically viable.

"If the golf course wasn't viable it wouldn't be open right now," he said. "We see many golfers come every day and play the course. The golf course is being used."

"We're not actually tied to the golf course or the ownership," McCarthy said. "We have to arrange access to the site when we go to do our biological studies. We really aren't associated with the golf course at all."

"I think clearly the neighborhood is concerned about losing a very pleasant view of the golf course," Johnson said noting the golf course would be replaced by brush.

"It will probably become overgrown in a few years," Johnson said.

Frandell noted that areas allowed to return to wetlands also become fire danger hazards. .

"The biggest concern I personally have is why is this happening," Johnson said. "We have a big government program that's coming into our community and forcing a particular transaction to go in a particular direction."

Johnson explained that EPA regulations make mitigation banks desirable for developers.

"The Federal regulations have made it an option for wildlife preserves to outbid recreation," Johnson said. "The Federal government is making this thing happen and it's not to the benefit of the community of Bonsall."

Frandell noted that the San Luis Rey Downs golf course is used by high school and college teams for practices and matches and is also the site of numerous tournaments whose proceeds are donated to local charitable organizations.

"The loss in use is just quite mind-boggling," he said.

The mitigation plans also include taking a portion of Golf Club Drive, which Johnson uses to access part of his property.

"It kind of creates an easement question," he said.

The Feb. 24 public hearing will allow CLG to provide additional details about the proposal's intentions.

"CLG will go ahead and present what their tentative plan and intention is," Suderer said.

"Hopefully the public meeting will be helpful and help the people understand what's going on," McCarthy said.

The hearing will also allow for public questions and comments. "We're looking for any sort of input that they may have, what their concerns are, if they have any historical knowledge of the area," Suderer said.

"Hopefully any and all questions will be answered then," Vessels said.

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