CARLSBAD — Eager to save a scenic eucalyptus forest threatened by the developer's ax, the City Council agreed Tuesday to put a measure on the November ballot that would allow the city to purchase Hosp Grove for nearly $6 million.
The council voted unanimously to go the ballot route despite worries expressed privately by grove advocates that the multimillion-dollar deal has little chance at the polls.
Hoping to persuade voters of the value of the forest, a dense stand of eucalyptus trees that covers the hills rising from the southern shore of Buena Vista Lagoon, the council also voted unanimously to sponsor a public education program.
"I think this is a reasonable approach," said Councilman Claude (Buddy) Lewis, a supporter of the 60-acre eucalyptus forest. "This is the last chance for the city to acquire the grove as a total package."
Councilman Mark Pettine agreed, noting that city officials have failed on numerous occasions in recent decades to buy Hosp Grove when the opportunity arose. Under the plan now being put forward, city property taxes would be raised to purchase the trees, often called the gateway to Carlsbad because of their prominent spot near the intersection of Interstate 5 and California 78.
"This compromise is fairly responsive to many of the requests of the community," Pettine said, adding that it was "unfortunate that prior councils did not move affirmatively to save the grove."
Planted by nurseryman E.F. Hosp in 1907, the grove has long been prized by residents as an inviting--and increasingly rare--natural visual amenity in a city that is fast becoming a patchwork of urbanization. Originally covering more than 200 acres, the eucalyptus forest is a quarter that size today, little more than a woodsy curtain between the commercial swirl of Plaza Camino Real mall and the quiet neighborhoods to the south.
In March, the City Council balked at a 216-unit condominium development on 26 lush acres in the grove after a phalanx of concerned residents stormed City Hall and protested the project. The council delayed the development by calling for an environmental review, which is to be completed in the fall.
Hoping to work out a compromise in the meantime, city officials began discussions with the landowner, a Los Angeles-based partnership, and the Neighborhood Alliance to Save Hosp Grove, a group formed by residents eager to see the forest spared from the ax. After months of negotiations, the proper ty owners agreed last week to sell the land if the city could come up with the money.
To do that, officials proposed the November ballot measure, which asks voters to approve spending $5.95 million to acquire 52 acres of the grove and preserve it as open space. If the measure gets the required two-thirds vote, bonds would be sold to finance the deal and property taxes would be raised to pay off the debt over a 20-year period.
For the owner of a $100,000 house, the property tax bill would rise by $18 a year--or less than a nickel a day.
If voters reject the ballot measure, the partnership has agreed to scale back its original development proposal.
Under the new plan, developers would build an "environmentally sensitive" office and commercial project on about 8.8 acres straddling Monroe Street at Marron Road, near the mall. In addition, 108 condominium units would be built on the eastern edge of the eucalyptus forest.
The landowners also would dedicate a 16.5-acre stretch of eucalyptus as permanent open space. The city, meanwhile, would purchase a nine-acre parcel adjacent to Buena Vista Lagoon for $975,000. In all, more than 25 acres of trees would be preserved.
While members of the Neighborhood Alliance to Save Hosp Grove plan to work to win approval of the ballot measure in November, they have expressed qualms over the compromise negotiated by the city. They say they fear the measure's multimillion-dollar price tag will frighten voters. With that in mind, they hold out little hope that the measure will receive the required two-thirds vote.
In addition, the organization is displeased with the developer's scaled-back plans, even though more trees would be preserved.
During negotiations, the alliance had proposed that the developer build only a four-acre commercial complex at the foot of the grove and erect about 50 single-family homes or high-quality condominiums on the forest's eastern edge.
Opponents contend that the new development proposal, like its predecessor, would wreak environmental havoc on the forest and nearby Buena Vista Lagoon, displacing wildlife and increasing congestion on nearby highways and streets.
"Their new proposal is too massive and would take down too many trees," said Julie Fish, a leader of the alliance fighting to save the grove. "We feel the landowners fully expect the ballot measure to fail, and they've tried to arrange a deal that will best serve their needs."