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Fight Over Trees : Developer Suggests Compromise on Hosp Grove

Times Staff Writer

Kay Christiansen has always had a special fondness for Hosp Grove.

As a young woman in the late 1920s, Christiansen led packs of Camp Fire Girls on overnight treks into the grove, a dense stand of eucalyptus trees that covers the hills rising from the southern shore of Buena Vista Lagoon.

In the years since, the longtime Carlsbad resident has made a habit of occasionally returning to Hosp Grove, savoring the quiet solitude of the forest during walks amid the towering trees.

“It’s an unusual treasure,” said Christiansen, 78. “With the rush of life, it’s wonderful to have a place to return to with your own thoughts.”

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So it’s no surprise that when Christiansen learned earlier this year of a developer’s plans to mow down a large stretch of the grove and build condominiums, she joined other Carlsbad residents fighting to block the project. The group, rallying hundreds of citizens and swarming City Hall for a hearing on the project in March, persuaded City Council members to delay a decision on the development.

But the 60-acre eucalyptus grove isn’t out of danger yet.

While many Carlsbad residents are hoping the stand can be spared from the buzz saw, the San Diego-based development firm proposing to build the 216-unit condominium project on 25 acres in the grove remains willing to see some sort of compromise plan move forward.

In recent weeks, officials from the Odmark Development Co. have been quietly discussing a proposal to scrap their condominium project and go forward instead with a commercial development at the base of the forest near the Plaza Camino Real shopping center. While still in the conceptual stages, the project is likely to include boutiques or professional offices as well as a restaurant. Most importantly, it would dramatically reduce the number of trees that would be cut down.

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Amid all that talk, city officials have suggested that a measure be placed on the ballot proposing the formation of a citywide assessment district to raise money to purchase the grove, which is owned by a Los Angeles-based partnership. Although the plan could prove expensive, with estimates of the land’s price tag ranging up to $8 million, it would spare every last tree in Hosp Grove, preserving the area either as parkland or as a wilderness area.

Meanwhile, members of the Neighborhood Alliance to Save Hosp Grove, the group that banded together to fight the condominium development, have initiated a campaign to win state funds to help purchase an eight-acre section on the forest’s western edge.

The group, which has collected 2,500 signatures from citizens who object to development of the grove, has also contacted state officials and several environmental groups, seeking assistance in their effort to retain the lush forest.

Finally, some residents of neighborhoods around Hosp Grove are toying with the idea of pushing a ballot initiative of their own. Under the proposed measure, it would be illegal to cut down trees in the grove that have a diameter of more than six inches. While the stipulation would effectively block any construction in the grove, several city officials predict it would prove vulnerable if challenged in court.

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“The fight over Hosp Grove is like a chess game that’s only half-played,” said Julie Fish, a leader of the alliance fighting to save the trees. “Just like a chess game, the battle could be over tomorrow or it could last much, much longer.”

When planted by Oceanside nurseryman E.F. Hosp in 1907, the grove covered more than 200 acres. Hosp envisioned the forest as a cash crop of sorts, producing long, straight timber that could be cut into railroad ties. But the entrepreneur soon learned that the wood, soft as butter when first cut, later hardens like flint, making it impossible to pound in railway spikes.

With Hosp’s dream shattered, the trees were allowed to stand. In recent decades, however, the forest has increasingly fallen prey to development, with houses and apartment projects nibbling away at the eucalyptus on every edge. Indeed, the grove now is little more than a woodsy curtain between the commercial swirl of the Plaza Camino Real mall and the quiet neighborhoods to the south.

Through it all, the grove has remained a sanctuary for numerous species of birds and other wildlife, including red-tailed hawks, raccoons, coyotes and possums. Moreover, the thicket of trees has served as a playground for generations of children in a quadrant of the city that is noticeably bereft of park space.

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Kevin McCann, an Oceanside attorney, remembers well the boyhood days when he and his friends would romp through the woods, playing hide-and-seek, catching frogs from a small pond or riding their bikes on the hard earth around the tree trunks. Today, McCann often takes his three young children on outings to the grove.

“They get a big kick out of it,” said McCann, 34, a lifelong Carlsbad resident. “They call it the jungle. They enjoy it for exactly the same reasons that I did and all the kids do.”

Many residents also treasure the grove as an inviting--and increasingly rare--natural visual amenity in a city that is becoming a patchwork of urbanization.

“It’s really majestic in there,” said Fish, whose home is within feet of the forest’s southwestern edge. “In many respects, the way Hosp Grove sits next to Highway 5, it’s like the gateway to the city. It’s the reason a lot of us wanted to live here.”

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Fish was among the first residents to sound the alarm over the proposed condominium development. As she and other opponents saw it, the development would have displaced wildlife in the forest, wreaked environmental havoc on nearby Buena Vista Lagoon and prompted increased congestion on nearby highways and streets.

Odmark officials, however, have staunchly maintained that they worked long and hard to address the concerns of city planners and make their condominium project of two- and three-story buildings blend well with the trees. Plans called for the firm to replant the 470 trees it would uproot and retain stretches of eucalyptus on the perimeter of the property to minimize the development’s visual impact.

Nonetheless, on March 18, after a lengthy hearing with more than 250 residents packed into the council chamber and watching on television monitors set up outside, the City Council voted to delay the project and requested that an environmental review be conducted. That review is under way, with a public meeting to register residents’ concerns scheduled tonight at City Hall.

In the midst of the furor over Hosp Grove, a movement was launched to qualify a slow-growth initiative for the November ballot. If approved by voters, the measure would severely restrict the number of construction permits issued each year. Supporters of Hosp Grove contend the looming growth measure constitutes a powerful incentive for Odmark to drop the condominium plan and instead pursue a commercial project that would have less effect on the trees.

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The landowners, however, maintain that their property would be exempt from any development restrictions. During the 1970s, the owners of Hosp Grove sued the city and won after Carlsbad officials placed a moratorium on development because of a lack of capacity at the city’s sewage plant.

“This isn’t simply a case of a wild-eyed developer coming in and saying, ‘This is my property and I’m going to do with it what I want,’ ” said Howard Rubinroit, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Grove Investment Partnership. “These owners have been involved with the city since the late 1950s.”

Rubinroit said the property owners and developers have worked hard to cooperate with city officials and Carlsbad residents and sculpt an acceptable compromise. But if those negotiations prove fruitless, yet another legal battle seems unavoidable, he said.

As envisioned by the developers, the compromise plan would call for a commercial development on about 10 acres straddling Monroe Street at Marron Road, just a stone’s throw from the Plaza Camino Real mall. Last Friday, the developers presented their conceptual ideas to city officials, who in turn discussed the matter with concerned residents on Saturday and Monday.

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Residents fighting for Hosp Grove have given the compromise proposal high marks, saying conceptual drawings of the buildings are attractive. In addition, group members have commended the developers and city officials for their willingness to hammer out a compromise. Nonetheless, the residents say they think 10 acres is too large a chunk to take from the eucalyptus grove and are eager to see the developers scale back their plans even further.

Moreover, they maintain that such a compromise is still only a last resort that should be turned to only if efforts to acquire the entire forest prove fruitless.

Several city leaders agree. Councilman Mark Pettine, a chief supporter of the forces fighting to save Hosp Grove, said he favors allowing Carlsbad residents the opportunity to vote on buying the land before any development is allowed.

“I think the grove is an important part of Carlsbad and deserves every opportunity to be saved,” Pettine said.

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Pettine said it is unfortunate city officials “did not act aggressively” in the past to acquire the land as a park. On several occasions in recent decades, officials considered buying the land, but balked because of qualms about spending the money.

And now it may be too late. Pettine and other Hosp Grove supporters contend the anticipated multimillion-dollar price tag for the grove might not prove palatable to Carlsbad voters.

“I honestly don’t know if the citizens would want to assess themselves what it will take to save the land,” Pettine said.

Fish agreed, saying she is “99% sure” a ballot measure proposing a citywide assessment district to buy Hosp Grove would fail to win voter approval.

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If the matter had to go to a vote of the people, Fish suggested that it might prove more acceptable if a smaller section of the grove was proposed for purchase. Under that scheme, development would be allowed on only a 15-acre section on the forest’s eastern edge, an area hemmed in by apartments and condominiums. The more pristine stretches of Hosp Grove, stretching along Monroe Street, would remain as open space.

Better yet, Fish has proposed that the city engage in a land swap, giving Odmark and the Grove Investment Partnership development rights on land adjacent to Plaza Camino Real mall in exchange for Hosp Grove. City officials, however, question whether that scheme could be accomplished.

“We’ve looked at the possibility of some trade-offs, but that involves other property owners and gets extremely difficult,” said Frank Mannen, assistant city manager. “It may not be do-able.”

Whatever its outcome, the battle over the eucalyptus trees has mushroomed into what many Hosp Grove loyalists describe as a symbol of the tug-of-war over growth raging in Carlsbad.

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“Citizens have seen large parts of the grove developed,” Pettine said. “It’s part of the feeling in Carlsbad that enough is enough.”


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