By Morgan Cook

 If the developer can’t buy the land to widen Deer Springs Road as part of his proposed 2,700-home Merriam Mountains development north of Escondido, the county may use eminent domain to acquire the land from property owners, county official said this week.

If the county approves the project, developer NNP Stonegate-Merriam is responsible for acquiring the land to widen Deer Springs Road from two to four lanes, according to an agreement between the developer and the county.

County Department of Planning and Land Use public affairs officer Gig Conaughton confirmed Monday, though, that the county may use eminent domain to acquire any land the developer can’t buy at fair market value for the widening.

Using eminent domain, the county can force property owners to sell part or all of their land for public uses, such as roads and infrastructure improvements.

County policy lists five criteria that must be met before the county can use eminent domain on behalf of a project proposed by private developers:

— The developer must have made reasonable offers based on a fair market value appraisal report and made every reasonable effort to acquire the property rights;

— Alternative locations for the public project must have been considered and found impractical;

— County staff must have deemed it unwise to abandon the public project altogether;

— The developer must have agreed to pay all the county’s costs, including land purchases and eminent domain proceedings;

— The Board of Supervisors must have mapped out the land to be acquired.

Improving Deer Springs road is part of the developer’s plan to build 2,700 homes on 560 acres within 2,327 acres of rugged, mountainous terrain across Interstate 15 from the Lawrence Welk resort.

The county’s Planning Commission voted last month to recommend approval of the project. County supervisors will have the final say on the project’s fate. County officials said the board will probably consider the project by the end of the year.

The developer is required to widen the 2 1/2-mile stretch of Deer Springs Road between Twin Oaks Valley Road and I-15 to prepare for the 10,000 to 20,000 extra trips the project’s 7,600 residents would add to the road’s daily traffic.

Even without the project, the county has planned to widen the road since 1967, when it was classified as a four-lane road. In 2006, the county proposed reclassifying it again from four lanes to six lanes from Twin Oaks Valley Road to Champagne Boulevard.

Widening the road from four to six lanes is not part of the Merriam Mountain project.

The county hasn’t yet evaluated how widening the road to four lanes will affect existing properties.

A local business owner wasn’t willing to wait.

Owners of the Golden Door Spa hired Vista-based R.E. Berg Engineering, Inc. in April to determine how much land would be needed to widen the road.

Spa spokesperson Byron Blount said the study cost about $10,000.

The study concluded that 17.55 acres of variously zoned land from Golden Door Spa and about a dozen other properties would be needed to widen Deer Springs Road to four lanes. Widening the road to six lanes would require acquisition of 39 acres, the report said.

Stonegate Vice President Joe Perring said this week that his company is still working on plans to widen the road, but he estimated that it would take 13 to 14 acres of private property to complete the project.

Perring said he expects his company will be able to acquire the land through independent negotiations with property owners.

Part of the spa’s property was dedicated to the county for road expansion in 1975, county officials said. Planners said they do not anticipate needing additional property from the spa.

Blount isn’t convinced, saying the R.E. Berg report indicates that the county will need 2 acres of spa property along the road, and that the dedication shown on county assessor’s records doesn’t appear to cover the whole stretch.

Two acres doesn’t sound like much, but it will bring construction noise farther into the property, which attracts patrons with its promise of peace and quiet, Blount said.

“It’s like saying, ‘We’re only going to take the front entry and the living room of your house, but you can still use the back of the house and the swimming pool,'” Blount explained. “It doesn’t really work like that.”

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