The Temecula City Planning Commission’s 5-0 vote and the City Council’s 4-1 vote to approve the Altair Specific Plan came after 5 years of diligent effort to meet with and listen to stakeholders and balance their concerns and desires with those of other members of the community while maintaining a viable project. The City has been planning on development of the Altair site for over 20 years as it will alleviate local traffic with the Western Bypass and locate residences within walking distance of Old Town; a key component to maintaining a vibrant downtown. Many stakeholders, even those within the conservation community that ultimately objected to the project, have stated publicly at workshops and hearings that they have never worked with a City staff and developer who has made themselves so available. The conclusion of these countless hours of presentations, meetings, and technical reports by experts in various fields comprises over 9,000 pages of analysis in the City’s Final Environmental Impact Report. Several of the Planning Commissioners and City Council members who approved this project are also some of the most engaged and well-educated people in Riverside County when it comes to local biology and wildlife corridors.
Throughout this process, our hope as the developer was to design a community in this monumental location that was supported by the CityStaff and Council, Temecula residents, Temecula businesses and conservationists alike. In the end, the majority of speakers at the public hearings represented large, local Temecula-based groups that are in favor of this project and are excited to live at Altair.
The primary complaint in the two lawsuits filed by environmental plaintiff organizations is the development of the 55-acre parcel at the south end of the Specific Plan Area. This parcel was zoned for rural residential development and initially proposed to be up-zoned for up to 450,000 SF of buildings for a civic use such as a university, hospital, convention center, etc. These uses in this location appeared sensible due to the parcel’s proximity to the Temecula Parkway and I-15 Interchange and to Old Town. What started as a 19-acre pad was reduced to a 10-acre pad after meeting with conservationists throughout 2013, 2014 and 2015. In early 2016 the City released their Draft Environmental Impact Report which analyzed this Civic Use on a 10-acre pad. Subsequently, several comment letters were received stating that this Civic Use was too intense and two public workshops were held in mid and late 2016. The result was a dramatic shift in February 2017 when the City Council asked us to voluntarily down-zone our property and directed City Staff to explore a Nature & Cultural Center use instead of the more intense Civic Use. Even one of the environmental plaintiffs wrote a letter to the City Council prior to this meeting stating, “less intensive civic uses that are compatible with biological values are viable [on the Civic Site]. For example, a readily accessible nature center at this location comes to mind, with associated trails and interpretive facilities”. As now approved, this 55-acre parcel consists of approximately 51 acres of open space and a 4 acre pad for a small Nature & Cultural Center and parking area; over a 95% reduction from the previously envisioned Civic Use.
The environmental plaintiffs have alleged that Altair is the final blow that will lead to Mountain Lion extinction in this area. This is false. The Santa Ana Mountains west of Temecula are a 700 square mile area that are home to a population of approximately 30 to 35 Mountain Lions. This area is surrounded by San Diego to the south, Orange County and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Riverside to the north and the I-15 freeway to the east. Construction of the I-15 freeway decades ago is what isolated this population from other Mountain Lion populations and resulted in a lack of genetic diversity in the Santa Ana Mountains. Over a long term, the lack of genetic diversity in a species will lead to the species’ extinction. Although we are sympathetic to this reality, this is a regional issue that exists regardless of Altair’s development. Data provided by leading scientists has shown that Mountain Lions have rarely stepped foot on any portion of the 270 acre Altair Specific Plan property, and that the project is sited on the very edge of the existing migration corridors. Altair, with additional dedication of lands within the key habitat linkages and funding for expanding those linkages, has embraced this issue and gone above and beyond any requirements to help ensure the long-term viability of the Santa Ana Mountain Lion population.
Although some environmental plaintiffs still see the Nature and Cultural Center as being problematic for wildlife movement (as evidenced by the lawsuits), several other conservation groups have applauded the revision.
We take great pride in the final design of the Altair Specific Plan and know it will be a great community.