Land-Use Battle Can Disturb Quiet Aplomb of Carlsbad's Mayor

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Mary Casler, a smartly dressed, diminutive woman with expertly coiffed, snow-white hair, is known about town as a decidedly low-key politician, a mild-mannered and rather predictable person who chooses her words carefully when she speaks at all.

Approachable and pleasant, the mayor presides over council meetings with quiet dignity and discusses even the most controversial topics with the controlled calm of a museum docent. She is polite, proper, almost prim.

But there is one issue that strips Mary Casler of her smooth civic veneer and makes her blood boil: Carlsbad's decade-old feud with the California Coastal Commission over control of land in the city's coastal zone.

Ask Casler to characterize the commission's position on city officials' plans for the use of coastal land in Carlsbad and she uses words like "inflexible," "unfair" and "ridiculous"--strong language for the usually affable mayor.

"The Coastal Commission has been disrespectful of the rights of Carlsbad and property owners within the city," Casler said. "Our relationship with them has been nothing but one frustration after another."

Indeed, for nearly 10 years, Carlsbad and the commission have struggled to reach a compromise over the city's local coastal program--a set of land-use policies mandated under the state Coastal Act that, once approved by both parties, award local officials sole authority over development in the coastal area.

Regardless of who's to blame for the impasse, the relationship has been a stormy one. At perhaps its worst point, in 1982, Carlsbad officials refused to prepare their required coastal plan and the Legislature ordered the Coastal Commission to do the job for them.

That plan was certified by the commission but has been ignored by the city, forcing developers with projects in the coastal zone to continue to obtain the approval of both agencies before building.

The nut of their disagreement has been the preservation of agricultural land in a 6,400-acre area roughly bounded by Batiquitos Lagoon, Interstate 5, Tamarack Avenue and El Camino Real and excluding areas surrounding Agua Hedionda Lagoon and Palomar Airport.

Commission staff analysts, citing stipulations in the 1976 Coastal Act, say that much of the city's coastal acreage must be reserved for farming. Carlsbad officials, however, contend that agriculture is no longer profitable in the coastal area and argue that property owners in the affected zone--including the billionaire Hunt brothers of Texas--should be permitted to develop their land as they wish.

Tired of the standoff, the city recently came up with a strategy they believe will both satisfy the commission and allow developers to build subdivisions or other projects on what is now farmland. Next month, the mayor and her troops will trek to a Coastal Commission hearing in San Francisco and make their case before the 11-member panel.

The city's plan is an innovative one, proposing that Carlsbad property owners be permitted to develop their land if they purchase an equal amount of prime agricultural land elsewhere in the state's coastal zone. That property, in Monterey or Marin counties, to name a few potential sites, would then be turned over to the state Coastal Conservancy or a nonprofit organization and retained in agricultural production.

Local landowners have another option under Carlsbad's plan: If a study validated by the city shows that agriculture is no longer economically feasible on their property, they can develop it as they wish with no penalty.

If approved, the city's so-called "off-site mitigation program for agriculture" will be the first of its kind in the state, officials at Coastal Commission headquarters in San Francisco said.

That's a big if, however, because, as usual, the city and the commission's staff analysts are not entirely in agreement over the plan. Moreover, both sides seem to think they've bent over backward to accommodate the needs of the other.

"The city has made some tremendous, tremendous concessions in coming up with this plan," said Gary Wayne, a city planner. "We have done the lion's share of the compromising. We want to end this dispute, but this is our bottom line."

Chuck Damm, the commission's assistant district director in San Diego, had a different view: "This off-site mitigation stuff is very creative, and we credit the city for coming up with it. But in recommending approval of even the concept , we think we're making a very major concession."

Essentially, commission analysts endorse the off-site mitigation idea for most of the coastal area but oppose it for the balance of the land--a 1,000-acre parcel near Batiquitos Lagoon that is owned by the Hunts, who plan to build a resort and residential development there.

Citing studies that show farming remains economically feasible in Carlsbad, analyst Adam Birnbaum said the commission would "prefer to see agricultural land preserved locally, in Carlsbad, rather than up north somewhere" as the city has proposed.

But because of "extreme development pressures in Carlsbad and the fragmented ownership of land in much of the coastal area, we recognize that maintaining agriculture in the region has become difficult." Therefore, the staff has recommended that the commission approve the city's proposal for about 5,400 coastal acres, which are divided among scores of owners.

The remaining 1,000 acres, however, have one owner--the Hunts--and are "suitable for a mixed-use approach" that combines low-density development with farming on about 200 acres, Birnbaum said.

"Frankly, we're not real enamored with the idea of preserving farmland so far from the development site," Damm said. "So with a large parcel with one owner, like the Hunts, we believe it's better to allow development on a portion of it and preserve agriculture on another portion."

Mayor Casler labeled that argument "ridiculous" and a position that unfairly "singles out" the Hunts. Hunt Properties Vice President D. L. (Larry) Clemens wasn't too thrilled either.

"Why should we be held to another standard?" Clemens said. "I don't think it's fair for them to segregate us. If we're part of the city we should be treated equitably."

Clemens added that it is "absurd to require us to have farming on land that's between two urban neighborhoods. If we were out on the outskirts of the city somewhere, maybe agriculture would be appropriate. But our project is in-fill."

While Clemens believes the city's off-site mitigation program is "far preferable" to the commission's alternative, he said the company would rather pay a fee for conversion of their agricultural land and see those fees used for the restoration of Batiquitos Lagoon.

This latest skirmish between the commission and the city caps years of acrimonious negotiations between the two parties. Throughout the process, city officials have charged the commission with being insensitive to their vision of appropriate land use and of attempting to virtually commandeer control of development in Carlsbad.

State officials, meanwhile, have accused Carlsbad of attempting to undermine state protection of land within the coastal zone and to obtain legislative relief from applicable regulations. They point to two 1984 episodes to illustrate that claim.

In April of last year, Casler and a coalition of Carlsbad landowners attempted to win approval of a bill by Sen. William A. Craven (R-Oceanside) that would have removed more than 4,000 acres of agricultural land from Coastal Commission jurisdiction.

The measure was requested by Casler, who teamed up with a former city planning director, who was working as a consultant to a consortium of Carlsbad landowners, to lobby for passage of the bill.

The mayor and consultant Donald Agatep planned to raise $425,000 from the property owners to promote the legislation, but the effort backfired when it was made public, and a Senate committee killed the measure.

Allegations that Casler and the City Council may have misused public funds or violated the state's public meeting laws in their campaign for the bill prompted a San Diego County district attorney's investigation. The mayor was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Two months later, the city was pushing for special legislation to abolish an agricultural subsidy program established by the commission to preserve farmland in the city. The program, part of the local coastal plan the commission was ordered to prepare for Carlsbad in 1982, required that landowners pay a $27,000 per acre fee into a fund for local farmers in exchange for development rights.

The bill was authored by Assemblyman Bill Bradley (R-Escondido), who introduced it after receiving a letter from Casler complaining about the program. The measure passed and paved the way for the return of more than $600,000 in fees to developers.

Casler and many of her colleagues say such efforts are consistent with the city's view that agriculture is no longer a viable part of the Carlsbad economy and that property owners have the right to develop their land as they see fit.

"We have many reports that show agriculture is not a viable use of the land, because the quality of soil is poor and the costs of water and labor are extremely high," Casler said. "It's true that Carlsbad has a history of beautiful flower fields, and we've seen them go, one by one. But development has simply become more valuable and landowners do have rights."

There are some Carlsbad officials, however, who differ with the mayor and believe some effort to preserve agricultural land within the city should be made. Councilman Mark Pettine calls the debate over farmland "part and parcel of the growth issue in this city" and says that it illustrates the "pro-development philosophy that is dominant here."

"This is just great for the developers, because they get to build on their land in Carlsbad by purchasing a few acres up in Salinas," Pettine said. "Well I want to know how that helps the people of Carlsbad? Why should we allow agriculture to dry up here and see local monies used to purchase land outside the city?"

Pettine said he would prefer the establishment of a fee system similar to the former agricultural subsidy program. Under his plan, a landowner in the coastal zone would pay a fee for permission to develop his property and the fees would be used to purchase and preserve land further inland in the city for agricultural production.

The Coastal Commission, however, has said there may be legal problems with such a program.

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