The controversial Newland Sierra housing development, long envisioned on the rolling hills just north of Escondido, appears to be officially dead.
After years of legal wrangling, the nearby Golden Door spa announced a deal to purchase the nearly 2,000-acre plot. The upscale resort would not say how much it paid for the land, citing a confidentiality agreement.
“Protecting this property reflects our deep commitment to sustainability, which we believe is part of our responsibility to our community and beyond,” Kathy Van Ness, general manager and chief operating officer of Golden Door, said in a statement. “Caring for the incredible resources on this site is a way we can truly contribute to our shared climate action goals.”
Newland Communities tried for more than a decade to build the roughly 2,100-home project west of Interstate 15 and north of Deer Springs Road in the Merriam Mountains. The San Diego-based company was also behind 4S Ranch, Woods Valley in Valley Center, and the original Rancho Peñasquitos.
However, Golden Door, as well as Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and several other environmental groups, opposed the housing development in court based on concerns about wildfire and greenhouse gas emissions from new car trips.
The spa is located south of Deer Springs Road near the entrance to where Newland Sierra would’ve been built. The facility includes a Japanese garden and miles of hiking trails through chaparral-covered landscape.
Representatives for Golden Door said the company is looking into how best to manage its new land, with a focus on “environmental stewardship.” Whether there will be public access for recreation has yet to be determined.
Newland Communities did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.
Matthew Adams, vice president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, bemoaned the deal.
“My first reaction was a combination of frustration and sadness because of the loss of desperately needed housing,” he said. “It underscores the Herculean effort it takes to get housing produced in this region and that is really a tragedy.”
Newland Sierra faced many setbacks in recent years. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2018, only to have residents launch a ballot initiative that overturned that decision in 2020.
The supervisors also proposed a first-of-its-kind carbon offset program in 2017 that would’ve allowed Newland and other developers to pay their way around restrictions on planet-warming vehicle emissions. County officials argued that a car-centric approach to growth wasn’t necessarily at odds with fighting climate change thanks to electric vehicles.
That plan was struck down by the state 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego, which called the offset scheme “illegal.” Then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra celebrated the ruling, saying, “Victories like this will help California get back on track to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals …”
Meanwhile, litigation between the developer and Golden Door continued. Opponents feared Newland would eventually overhaul its vision and try again. The sale, which Golden Door called a “creative settlement solution,” now puts that to rest. An appellate court had been expected hear the case next year.
Newland Sierra was just one of several developments proposed in high-fire areas that have been stifled in recent years.
A San Diego Superior Court judge, for example, blocked a 1,119-home project last year known as Adara at Otay Ranch over concerns related to wildfire and climate change. The upscale housing development east of Chula Vista was also opposed by the state attorney general.
Most recently, the Board of Supervisors — controlled by Democrats since 2020 — approved in October a suite of environmental policies that developers and conservation groups agree will make it very difficult to build in more rural parts of the county.
The new rules stem from a landmark state law that directs jurisdictions to shift from analyzing a housing project’s impact on traffic congestion to vehicle miles traveled. The Legislature passed a law in 2013 mandating that local governments embrace the switch in an effort to discourage suburban development and make it easier to urbanize existing communities.
Board Chair Nathan Fletcher lauded the deal for Newland’s property.
“It is truly extraordinary that Golden Door made this happen in San Diego County,” he said in a statement. “There are very few examples anywhere of a land purchase of this magnitude for the purpose of environmental protection.”