By Pat Sherman

When John Stanley surveys the five acres he owns off Bent Avenue, his mind wanders to the wild geese taking flight from the dew-speckled grass.

It’s a pleasant, albeit brief, vision that is quickly replaced by memories of his more than three-decade battle with city officials over the property.

When he and his wife, Janis, bought the land in 1976, they envisioned building a commercial complex, similar to existing ones along Bent Avenue between San Marcos Boulevard and Discovery Street, which could be rented out to small industrial businesses.

Though the Stanleys were told the property was zoned for commercial manufacturing uses, they received a letter from the city shortly after the sale went through, notifying them that flood control issues prevented development of their property.

The Stanleys said they have fought the city over the land ever since, and they have stacks of letters to prove it. Most recently, the city threatened to take their land via the powers of eminent domain should the Stanleys decline its purchase offer.

The city wants to build levees and make other flood control improvements on the Stanley’s property as part of its proposed $1 billion San Marcos Creek development, which would be located directly across Bent Avenue.

“Thirty years ago, I started to cry,” Janis Stanley said. “Ten years later, I started to cry again. Now, I just don’t give a damn. … We’ll end up going to court.”

The Stanleys are among those favoring a slow-growth measure headed for the Nov. 4 ballot. Dubbed the San Marcos Growth Management and Neighborhood Protection Act 2007, the measure would require all amendments to the city’s general plan that require a change in land use designation to be approved by a majority of the voters.

If approved, the measure would be retroactive, requiring a vote on all projects approved after July 23, 2007, including the adjacent creek development, which would include a mix of residential, retail and office space along San Marcos Creek.

John Stanley said he believes the city cannot sustain the traffic that would be generated by the creek project. It is expected to add an estimated 120,000 cars per day to San Marcos roadways.

“If they fill all those condos they’re talking about building, every one will have two or three cars,” John Stanley said.

What John considered to be a reasonable offer on his property — $3.5 million from Kaufman & Broad — evaporated after the city told the company the Stanleys property was in a flood plain and could not be developed.

“The city says you can’t do anything with it,” said John Stanley, 78. “Basically they condemned it.”

A grass roots coalition of slow-growth proponents plans to hand out fliers and walk door-to-door educating San Marcos voters on the initiative in the coming months. San Marcos environmentalist and former mayoral and council hopeful Lita Bowles is among them.

In 1992, Bowles led a group that successfully fought the city’s plans to turn a portion of San Marcos Creek into a concrete channel. Today, that portion lies along a bike and pedestrian path behind Twin Oaks Valley Mobile Home Park, where Bowles and her daughter own homes.

“Isn’t that gorgeous?” Bowles said Friday morning, gazing down at the creek from a bridge. “I just get such a thrill out of the creek. You can see the natural vegetation … and the flow of the creek is beautiful.”

Bowles said she fears that the San Marcos Creek project will destroy wetlands.

“From what I’ve read, 90 percent of the wetlands in San Diego County have been destroyed,” Bowles said.

She said she is not opposed to growth, but mixed-use projects have had problems. Projects along Rancho Santa Fe Road and Mission Avenue similar to what the city is proposing on San Marcos Creek have vacancies, she said.

“Nobody’s renting them, and they just sit there vacant year after year,” Bowles said.

Bowles and other slow-growth proponents face an uphill battle. A political action committee (PAC) that formed last month, has already spent $35,000 to defeat the measure.

The PAC, known as the San Marcos Association of Residents and Taxpayers, was formed in part by Steve Kildoo, chairman of the city’s planning commission.

According to financial disclosure statements filed with the city clerk’s office, $10,000 of the PAC’s funds are from Urban Village San Marcos, part of a company seeking to develop a blend of commercial, residential and retail near Cal State San Marcos to be known as “Heart of the City.”

Cynthia Skovgard, who helped circulate petitions to get the slow-growth measure on the ballot, called the PAC a “typical alliance of backslapping good-old boys in action.”

“They’ve networked out to the ones that they have deals with — you support me, I’ll support you,” Skovgard said.

At least 40 California cities have slow-growth measures, including Solana Beach, Del Mar, Poway and Escondido.

San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond and all four city council members oppose San Marcos’ initiative, saying it would create extra hoops for developers to jump through, causing them to take their business elsewhere.

“I think you’ve seen economic development in Escondido stall, and that’s what we don’t want to see,” city spokeswoman Jenny Peterson said Friday.

Pressed for specifics, Peterson declined to elaborate, though she cautioned against engaging in an apples-and-oranges comparison.

“When you look at some of those communities, like a Del Mar or a Solana Beach, those are communities that are built out, so it has a very different impact on them than a community like San Marcos, where we are still growing,” Peterson said.

“Some of the development that is set to take place over the next two years will be the keystone development to our build out.”

A $30,000 report commissioned by the city of San Marcos to gauge the effect of the measure states that putting general plan amendments to a vote could delay the development process by 24 to 30 months.

“It has to go to election, the election results have to be verified, there’s a whole litany of reasons why,” Peterson said.

“Generally speaking, the report found that the new process could result in roughly $2 million per general plan amendment … made up through legal costs, election costs and staff costs.

“Those funds would … take money away from services like public safety, fire protection and parks.”

Despite passage of Escondido’s slow-growth initiative, Prop. S, Skovgard said that city has the second highest sales tax revenue in the county, in part because of Escondido’s auto dealerships.

Skovgard noted that San Marcos Planning Director Jerry Backoff, who opposes the measure, resides in Poway, which has a slow-growth ordinance.

“Why would he choose to live in a city that is so damaged by a similar proposition?” Skovgard said. “Because it’s not true. It’s just a bunch of hyperbole.”

Backoff deferred to city spokeswoman Peterson to respond.

“He is not familiar enough with that plan to speak on it,” Peterson wrote in e-mail. “He wasn’t sure if Poway’s initiative was/is the same as what’s being proposed in San Marcos.”

Skovgard and other slow-growth proponents would like to see San Marcos’ general plan updated with input from residents.

“It’s not like we want to vote on all these projects,” Skovgard said. “We want them to follow the general plan … but they like spot-zoning. They like to do whatever they want, in spite of what the citizens want.”

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