Waheto National Park
Waheto National Park
(Also known as Rancho Guejito)
A Priceless Landscape
It has always been Benjamin and Nancy Coates' wish (the rancho's owners since the 1970's) that the property be protected from development forever and preserved in its pristine state.
National Park status would prevent further mismanagement of Waheto
Threats of Development at Waheto
Benjamin Coates had a vision for Rancho Guejito, the last undeveloped Mexican land grant in California. He spoke with passion and pride that his vast, wild land holding in North County would forever remain as open space.
He had good reason for this desire. The land is pristine, with multiple species of native plants and animals living freely in a natural environment. Riparian (riverbed) habitats meander through oak woodlands and chaparral hillsides, leading to mountainous terrain. Native Americans have their own reasons to revere these hills and valleys.
Guejito, 36 square miles east of Escondido and Valley Center, also serves as a wildlife corridor connecting Palomar Mountain and the Cleveland National Forest with some of North County's pockets of open space, including Daley Ranch and Hellhole Canyon.
Coates, who died in 2004, would be devastated that his heirs have not only blurred his vision, but have turned it upside-down. Rather than create the dedicated preserve Coates had planned, they would prefer to create a financial windfall for themselves.
Preliminary plans call for an urbanized cluster of possibly thousands of units to be built on 6,000 acres. The developer, the Rodney Company, touts its generosity of leaving the original land grant intact as open space. The company would only use acreage purchased subsequently.
But this is a disingenuous gesture. Almost all of the land ---- both the original grant and the newly acquired ---- is basically unbuildable. In effect, the offer is to gain approval for a vast, new urban cluster in a rural area, in exchange for not building on land that could not sustain development.
Some of us have seen this tactic before: Buy land with steep slopes, rocky terrain, far from existing infrastructure, then ask governmental bodies for massive zoning concessions, so they can cluster houses on the few relatively level portions of an otherwise unbuildable parcel.
It is true that this is private property, and the owners have been paying taxes on it. But that does not convey an inherent right to rezone the land. No one is standing in their way of developing the land as the general plan permits.
Rural, inaccessible land, however, is taxed and zoned as such, and any request to change its legal status is called real estate speculation. Developers gamble that they can wrangle three votes from the elected bodies that control land use (translated city councils and county boards of supervisors) to approve their general plan amendments.
Not only would the developer of Guejito need a huge increase in zoning, it is asking the public to accept leapfrog development that would shatter the concept of "smart growth" ---- where new growth is adjacent to existing infrastructure and transportation corridors.
Coates was a visionary, and we must remember his dream ---- before the land he loved is transformed into an irreversible urban nightmare
Priceless TreasurePublic can buy vast North County rancho
San Diego Union-TribuneJanuary 16, 2007
People often use the term "priceless" to describe possessions that are too valuable to lose. But markets are pretty good at putting a price on "priceless" assets, and that process is under way at Rancho Guejito, the glittering environmental jewel of Southern California that is tucked into a hidden valley of North San Diego County.
If you have never heard of Rancho Guejito, don't feel bad -- few people have ever seen it. The property is big: 36 square miles, or about 21,000 acres, that sprawls in a vast rectangle from behind the Wild Animal Park, near Escondido, northeast to the 4,221-foot peak of Pine Mountain, near the La Jolla Indian Reservation.
Rancho Guejito is the last intact Mexican land grant in California. To stand in the hush of its grasslands is to revisit San Diego's Old West. Along with a token herd of cattle, it is home to golden eagles, mountain lions, deer and pristine stands of Engleman oak trees, along with archaeologically and historically important sites. Eastern industrialist Benjamin Coates bought the property for $10 million in 1974, after the state failed to buy it for a park. He spent 30 years enjoying his property and fighting off environmentalists, airport planners, dump developers and others. But Coates died in 2004. His heirs and partners have been busy since.
Their hand was forced by the county government's General Plan 2020, an unfinished blueprint for growth that could sharply reduce development prospects for the rancho -- and thus the property's market value. So Guejito's owners hired Jim Whalen, a top-tier development consultant who sits on an advisory board to GP2020. Neighbors soon spotted surveyors, prompting the owners' spokesman, Temecula attorney Henry Rupp, to deny that any development was planned. But last week another shoe dropped. The rancho's owners asked Escondido city officials to explore its annexation. This would place the property beyond the reach of county planners.
Rupp will find open arms on Escondido's City Council. Rancho Guejito would double the city's land mass. And Rupp is peddling a vision of a medical research campus to a council that is desperate for high-paying jobs. Of course, annexation is monstrously difficult. And environmentalists are girding for battle. More broadly, Escondido might approve thousands of new homes, miles from roads, power and water supplies. This kind of leap-frog development strains infrastructure and runs afoul of state laws that mandate infill near existing cities. Still, any steps toward development increase Guejito's value -- well into tens of millions of dollars, based on recent deals for the Hearst and Ahmanson ranches.
By far, San Diego County's 3 million people would gain the most from preserving the land. Between state park bonds and environmental funds in the TransNet tax, we have the money. The public should have this jewel, and Coates' heirs can get a fair price.