The Long Climb to Black Mountain Ranch
(page 1 of 3)THERE HAVE BEEN MANY DAYS when Fred Maas, developer of Black Mountain Ranch, thought it would be easier to get Pierre duPont IV elected president of the United States than to get a house built on his sprawling parcel of land in the northern reaches of San Diego.
In 1988, wrapping up a stint as a senior campaign adviser to the former Delaware governor in his largely unmemorable bid for the Republican nomination, Maas joined the company that bought the 5,600 acres of land from bankruptcy court for $53 million. This summer, 17 years after the ink dried on the deed, Maas will see his first house go on the market. His original partners are long gone—as are, he jokes, the hairs on his head.
It’s not a new story when developers of large, master-planned communities in San Diego face delays before the first bulldozer rolls. Often there are ballot-box propositions (where voters become land planners); multiple lawsuits; a slew of environmental roadblocks; changes in government regulations; and scores of community meetings for the dissatisfied and disenchanted to sound off.
What is different about Black Mountain Ranch: The outcome—a project amended by all of the above and then some—is now heralded by those friendly to development, and many of those opposed, as an exemplary product of good planning. The project is what’s called “smart growth” and “a sustainable development.” It sets a benchmark in San Diego for “green building,” practices that embody respect for the environment.
“If [all developers] were as forward-thinking as Fred is, we’d be better off,” says San Diego Councilmember Scott Peters, whose District 1 includes Black Mountain Ranch. “He’s set a good standard.”
“I’d like to say that everything good was all genius on my part,” says Maas, “but it was an evolutionary process, with many constituencies involved. The process dictated what we could develop. Everything we did had intense scrutiny.” built on his sprawling parcel of land in the northern reaches of San Diego.
THE 5,600-ACRE PARCEL Maas’ company bought in 1988 was roughly bordered by Rancho Bernardo to the east, what’s now Carmel Valley to the west, Rancho Peñasquitos to the south and Santa Fe Valley to the north. The company planned a development built around a PGA Tour golf course, one that would replace what was then a deteriorating course at Torrey Pines for the Buick Invitational. Voter-approved Proposition A, passed in 1985, limited development in the area to one home for every 10 acres or, with consent from the city council, one house per 4 acres; anything denser had to go back on the ballot.
Maas sought and, in 1992, received city council approval to build at the higher density. The authorization came with a $200 million commitment for developer-financed infrastructure, including a large network of roads. In 1994, Proposition C was backed by Maas and other developers in a 12,000-acre area dubbed by the city as the Future Urbanizing Area, which included Black Mountain Ranch. Environmental groups and neighboring communities fought the measure, which would have allowed one house per acre. Proposition C was soundly defeated at the polls.
So Maas regrouped for a new strategy. He began negotiations with the city to reduce his infrastructure obligations—notably, many of the road improvements, because enough homes couldn’t be built to support the road costs. “Part of the problem we’ve always faced,” says Maas, “is the continual change of faces at City Hall. With a couple of exceptions, there’s no institutional memory of Black Mountain Ranch.”
To raise capital and buy time for planning parts of the project where infrastructure requirements were the most demanding, two parcels of Black Mountain Ranch were sold to other developers: 3,800 acres known as Santaluz and 60 acres known as Verrazzano. (Both developments are now sold out.)