The recent announcement that six big builders have been picked for the Village of La Costa, a trio of master planned communities in Northern SanDiego County, was only the proverbial “beginning of the final stretch” for Morrow Development.
Indeed, it has been nearly a decade since the small, 10-person firm first became involved in the project. And it has been a long, very personal journey for its president, Fred Arbuckle, who not only moved his family—lock, stock, and furniture—into development the community but also went door to door to win the support of his neighbors.
It took Arbuckle six years to win approval from the Carlsbad, Calif., City Council to move ahead with the development on some 2,100 infill acres. And when the town fathers gave their blessings unanimously, the approval received more than the usual public attention. The TV lights blazed, local newspapers converged, and the radio stations seized the news.
The battles Arbuckle fought to get to that point often were pretty public, too. Sometimes they were downright ugly as well, with one environmental group going so far as to trespass onto the property near a dangerously steep canyon to promote its cause. And as usual, the lawsuits flew.
But through it all, the developer persevered. And he did so largely because he took it all personally. Very personally.
Joining the Enemy Every developer worthy of the title meets with community groups and other interested parties. They send in their lawyers, public relations people, and various and sundry other folks to listen to their fears and try to mollify them as best they can.
In Arbuckle's case, though, he did the heavy lifting himself. And he took a step unusual for the head honcho of most developers: He moved into the community and lived among what is usually perceived as “the enemy,” he attended meeting after meeting, and he negotiated every compromise himself. He even knocked on doors to hear people out.
“There are a lot of different ways to try to ease people's concerns,” says Arbuckle, age 56. “Usually it's the staff's responsibility to meet with homeowner associations and the like. Sometimes a senior person is assigned to the high-noon rotary circuit. But I felt it was important for people to put a face to the project and have someone in authority who they could talk to.”
Moving into the community had its drawbacks. For one thing, the developer was always on call, listening to gripes night and day. He always was “at work,” too.
But Arbuckle says that being able to get to know people and their issues—and allowing people to get to know him—more than made up for the irritations. “It helped me gain a better insight as to what we faced to gain approval,” he says. “And as they got to know me, I was no longer a stranger, a suit, walking in asking for approval.”
Facts, Not Fiction “It's important to understand everyone's concerns and deal with facts, not hearsay,” Arbuckle says. “You can't always resolve their issues; there are some things you just can't do. But I'd rather have the disagreement based on facts rather than rumor that does not reflect reality.”
Take Box Canyon, for example: The 95-foot waterfall canyon was a popular place for teenagers and young adults to gather to drink and do other things kids like to do. Sometimes they'd dive into the creek below. Often enough, in fact, that during a 10-year period, seven people dived to their deaths.
The canyon had always been earmarked for preservation. But to stop the noise and other shenanigans, Morrow erected an eight-foot fence around the area. Not only did the barrier fail to keep the kids out, it brought the protesters in.
“A community group thought the fence meant we were going to develop the area and the canyon would be destroyed,” says Arbuckle. “That was never the case, but it got a lot of people involved, including the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.”
Because of the publicity, it became a national event. But Arbuckle ended up doing what he always said he was going to do—set Box Canyon aside, donate it to a nonprofit preservationist group, and provide an endowment to take care of it in perpetuity.
First Village Under Way It's been a long haul since Arbuckle became involved at the Villages in 1995. But the length of the journey didn't surprise the developer, at least not completely.
“When you're talking about infill, it often becomes a very emotional issue,” he says. “A lot of people are affected by the change in landscape. When there's been an open field behind their houses for 20 years—fields where they've taken walks and their kids have ridden their dirt bikes—it becomes theirs.”
Soon, though, sales will finally begin at La Costa Oaks, the second of four, non-contiguous master planned communities comprising nearly 2,400 houses on 2,100 acres, more than half of which is designated as protected open space. Prices will range from the $700,000s to the low-$1 millions.
Six big builders—Davidson Communities, Warmington Homes, K. Hovnanian, Shea Homes, Centex Homes, and Pulte's Col Rich Communities division—are currently at work in the Oaks, starting construction on the first of 494 houses in six different neighborhoods. At build-out, the property will consist of 1,032 detached and attached homes in 12 neighborhoods on 741 acres.
The third and fourth communities, La Costa Greens and La Costa Ridge, will be built over the next 15 years. La Costa Valley, the first village in Morrow's four village plan, sold out in less than three years after its 1998 opening.