Local, investigative journalism delivered straight to your inbox.
San Diego County has warned and cited a developer four times since 2014 over building violations in a Lake San Marcos community of more than 2,000 homes. So far, the county has taken no action to impose fines that could reach more than half a million dollars.
Why this matters
The San Diego County Planning and Development Services Department enforces building and zoning codes in unincorporated areas, but the process for correcting violations can take years.
Nearby residents are frustrated with the county for not doing more to make the developer fix the violations.
At issue is the construction of luxury glamping tents, a pavilion and a trail built by Citizens Development Corp., the owner of Lake San Marcos, a man-made lake surrounded by homes southwest of the city of San Marcos. Citizens Development never obtained building permits during construction four years ago, and at least one of the structures was built on land owned by a homeowners association.
Citizens Development and the homeowners association – Varadero Maintenance Corp. – have been in litigation over the dispute since 2015. The developer said the case is what’s stopping the company from correcting the issues.
“We’re just as frustrated – if not more – that we can’t take it up to code,” said Rob Reinhart, public relations director for Pacifica Enterprises, a real estate investment company that manages Citizens Development. “Unfortunately, you can stall on things with the courts, and there’s nothing we can do.”
Varadero homeowners started complaining to the county in 2014, saying the developer was encroaching on their land.
“We tried to stop it,” said Kip McBane, an architect and former developer who lives in the Varadero community. “We went to the county and complained while it was under construction. And the question that we have always had is, why didn’t the county come out (with) code enforcement like they do everywhere else and stop the construction before it was completed?”
The land the county says Citizens Development encroached on is part of an open space easement – a legal designation that means the space is preserved for a specific purpose. In this case, the easement is on Varadero property and was kept open as agricultural land and natural habitat. The county says the developer built a glamping tent platform and a hiking path that crossed onto the easement.
The open space borders a portion of the Lake San Marcos shore and is only accessible by boat or a gravel path. A dock and a pavilion are along the shore.
Citizens Development did obtain one permit for the construction it did along the shore, but it was only for rebuilding the pavilion. Vince Nicoletti, a deputy director of the county Planning and Development Services Department, said the company’s renovation exceeded the scope of the permit. In addition, the company installed unpermitted wooden platforms for the glamping tents, Nicoletti said.
The county notified Citizens Development of code violations in 2014 and ordered the tents removed, which the company did. The company also closed off the pavilion.
In all, Citizens Development has been notified four times by the county of violations. The first warning came in March 2014, and the second two months later. Then the county issued the first notice that it would be charging Citizens Development civil penalties on Aug. 3, 2016. A second notice was issued on Feb. 17, 2017. Each one was for different violations on the property. If imposed at their highest amount, the penalties would total $550,000.
Reinhart said Citizens Development hasn’t been fined because the way the land is being used hasn’t changed. The former glamping tent structures are now picnic platforms, and the pavilion will be restored to what was permitted originally.
“We’re going to bring the space up to the code of the existing permit, of what it was historically. Not turn it into a different use,” Reinhart said. “We’re going back to a picnic area that [residents have] enjoyed for 60 years.”
Reinhart declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he said the company can’t fix the violations until the lawsuit filed by Citizens Development against the Varadero homeowners association is settled.
Residents say they aren’t opposed to the developer improving the space, but they want some safety concerns addressed.
Dottie Georgens, who bought a home in the Varadero project when she retired in 2012, said she is frustrated that the county and the developer are taking years to restore the open space.
“We deserve to be treated fairly and honestly, and that’s really what I’m asking from the county” and from Citizens Development, Georgens said.
She said trespassers using the hiking path have posed safety issues. Once, a group of young female hikers got lost on the trail and ended up on her patio knocking on the door at night, Georgens said.
Nicoletti said the county has not intervened more because of the ongoing litigation, and the hope that the developer and homeowners group will reach a settlement.
“Our goal is compliance, not necessarily citations,” he said. “So up to this point we’ve heard both sides routinely saying that they are working actively together to try to find resolution.”
The lawsuit by Citizens Development claims Varadero is violating the terms of a land lease between the two entities by not cooperating with the developer’s attempts to resolve the issue.
In September, the case was taken out of court in favor of arbitration. Everett DeLano, Varadero’s lawyer, said he became aware of a potential conflict of interest in November between the arbitrator and one of the lawyers for Citizens Development. DeLano said he requested a new arbitrator on Nov. 28, and the case has stalled since then.
Michael Whitton, the lawyer for Citizens Development, declined inewsource’s request to comment on the lawsuit.
We’ll let you know when big things happen.