Developer will buy part of Carlsbad strawberry fields
North County Times - 09/06/2012
By Eric Wolff
A Los Angeles developer said Wednesday that he will buy 48 acres of strawberry fields in Carlsbad along Interstate 5, setting in motion a new round of discussions over developing the property.
In an unusual move for a developer, a top Caruso Affiliated official said the company has no specific plans for the property, which it purchased from San Diego Gas & Electric Co., beyond a desire to build retail, possibly mixed with housing.
Instead, the company says it will use community input and suggestions to create a plan. The process helps the company overcome the kinds of community opposition that plagued a 2006 attempt to develop the property.
"As a company, we've always gravitated to properties that have had a lot of sensitivities and entitlement issues," said Rick Caruso, president and CEO of the company. "We've typically been the second or third developer that has gone into the property."
The strawberry fields have a history of controversy: Six years ago, home builder Lennar Corp. tried to buy 255 acres of strawberry fields from SDG&E, plus 70 acres from Carltas Co., with the intention of building hundreds of homes and storefronts. The community rallied and Lennar dropped its bid.
At the time, SDG&E said it would accept future bids only from companies that would engage the community.
A few years later, the San Diego Chargers asked Carlsbad if the team could build a stadium on the site, according to Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall.
"We told them, 'No,'" he said.
On Wednesday, SDG&E was pleased "with Caruso's community-based approach" to developing the property, said Erin Coller, a utility spokeswoman.
Caruso staffers met with Carlsbad officials Wednesday and Thursday to discuss community engagement and its timing, Caruso said.
Hall said he'd met with representatives from Caruso twice.
"They're starting on the right foot by coming to Carlsbad and just listening," he said.
The company will open an office in Carlsbad, and it expects to open the full planning process to the community.
"We start literally with a blank sheet of paper," Caruso said. "We start developing a plan as we get feedback from the community. We do two or three rounds of that so it's a very iterative process."
Caruso has used the process before in building 14 properties in Southern California and Nevada, including The Grove, in Los Angeles. The company builds for the long haul, as well ---- Caruso said he's never sold any of his projects.
In Carlsbad, Caruso holds an option to buy additional land. However, Caruso said the parts of the strawberry fields that are protected by Carlsbad as open space will remain open space, even if the company decides to buy it later.
In a prepared statement distributed by Caruso's representative, Jimmy Ukegawa, president of the Carlsbad Strawberry Company Inc., which works the land, sounded optimistic.
"We have had a great working relationship with SDG&E and are confident in their commitment, as well as that of Caruso Affiliated, to working together to continue strawberry farming along Cannon Road as part of any plan that develops," he said in the statement.
Neither SDG&E nor Caruso would reveal the price of the property, but SDG&E's Coller said the price would emerge from requests for permits and approvals to various bureaucratic boards.
The company expects to need between 12 and 18 months to go through the design and entitlement process, Caruso said.