Late this summer, a proposal to build 780 homes just north of state Route 76 and across the highway from the Pala Casino Resort & Spa will go before county planners and ultimately the Board of Supervisors for approval.
It’s one of several large housing proposals in the planning pipeline in inland North County, but different in several ways.
The developer, Ali Shapouri, has been working on the plans for his Warner Ranch project for 13 years and bases almost everything on a single concept — that thousands of casino and resort workers in North County (Pala, Pauma, Rincon, Valley View) drive great distances between their work and their homes.
His project would give them the option of living much closer to their work, he says, thereby bettering their lives and taking cars off the highway and Interstate 15.
The Pala Band of Mission Indians strongly opposes the project, as do environmental groups.
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“The project would be the death knell of that part of the backcountry in my view over the long term,” Silver said. “It has no merit from a planning perspective.”
Silver said Warner Ranch is the “most remote in a series of remote general plan amendment” applications and “would sooner or later necessitate improvements on Highway 76 to widen that road. That would be hugely growth-inducing and would open up the whole Pauma Valley to sprawl.”
But Shapouri says Warner Ranch would serve a great need. He said a study accepted by the county a few years ago clearly shows that 2,200 people each day who work at the casinos or at agriculture-based businesses in the area drive 45 minutes or longer to get to their homes in Riverside County and elsewhere.
Warner Ranch is a unique “workforce housing” proposal addressing a specific need Shapouri said he first identified around 2005. His plan does not call for the widening of the highway, though improvements would be made right in front of the development, and he says it would actually reduce traffic in the long run because people who already drive right by the land would now be turning into the development instead of driving much further to get home.
“I believe this project is a very good example of how you design settlements that match existing patterns and fabrics of a society,” he said.
“We’re doing a real planning study,” he added. “We’re following the General Plan. We’ve taken our time. And we’ve come up with a project that’s real and doable and helps people. That’s why I think it’s going to be successful.”
The project would be built on private land adjacent to the Pala reservation. Its entrance would be about 2,000 feet to the west of the Pala casino. Some of the houses would be built right across the street from the large gaming complex. The homes would be clustered together on about 130 acres of the 513-acre property. The rest of the land would remain open space.
One of the guiding principles of the county’s General Plan is that such projects should be built near established communities where residents of the new project could shop, recreate, etc.
Shapouri says it will be: the community of Pala.
But Pala is an Indian reservation and is technically a sovereign nation.
Lawyers for the tribe, in filings with the planning department, say Pala cannot be used to justify the project.
“As the numerous comments provided by the Pala Band to the County concerning this issue have made clear, the County has no regulatory jurisdiction over activities on the Pala Reservation and the Pala Band has no obligation to allow residents of the Project access to areas of the Reservation except on public roads,” they wrote last year.
Shapouri said that while technically Pala is its own country, the county needs to use common sense. The community exists, he said, and it’s right next door to where Warner Ranch would be built.
One example of how things are different when reservations are involved is the Pala tribe has a state-of-the art, fully staffed fire station less than a mile from where Warner Ranch would be built.
But the plans for the development include construction of a new fire station next to its entrance which will be handed over to the county.
The tribe also says Shapouri’s basic concept that workers in the area could buy homes at Warner Ranch is inaccurate.
Ninety percent of casino/resort employees make $55,000 a year or less and simply couldn’t afford to buy a Warner Ranch home, even a condo, they say in comments to the planning department.
Shapouri said his studies show that homebuyers would almost certainly be double-income residents and that some could afford homes. The plans call for many multi-family homes as well as small detached houses. A few years ago, Shapouri estimated some units could sell for less than $300,000. But times have changed and housing prices have risen as has the cost of labor.
The market will have to determine going forward how much the units will sell for, he said.
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“The impact of 780 homes a thousand feet from the casino is concerning,” he said.
“The tribe is insistent that the land continue to be zoned agricultural and it will continue to make its concerns known going forward,” Elmets said.
The Pala tribe has proven to be a worthy opponent in the past. For more than 20 years, it battled against, and spent millions of dollars fighting, plans to build a landfill near the reservation. In the end, they won by buying Gregory Canyon where the dump would have been placed.
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