Old Town housing development would put mountain lions at risk, scar hillside, lawsuit contends

Environmentalists followed through with threat to sue the city of Temecula to block 1,750-unit Altair housing development.

Environmentalists filed a lawsuit this week to block the Altair project, a 1,750-unit housing development slated for the foothills of Old Town Temecula.

“The (Temecula) City Council’s Altair approval ignored scientists’ warnings that developing the South Parcel will severely limit mountain lion movement in Southern California,” said J.P. Rose, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “It’s deeply disturbing that the city refused to make reasonable modifications to the development to avoid damaging a critical corridor for these iconic predators.”

The “South Parcel” is the southern tip of the 270-acre swath of land that was purchased years ago by Ambient Communities, a San Diego-based real estate developer.

After some back-and-forth with Ambient and a coalition of environmentalists, who packed workshop meetings to decry the project’s potential impact on local mountain lion communities, the city decided to build a nature center on the south parcel, which was deeded to the city for a public use by Ambient, instead of a small college campus or hospital.

This compromise, however, was not good enough for members of the coalition — the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Mountain Lion Foundation and Cougar Connection — who said any activity on that land would effectively sever a critical corridor for mountain lions.

“The project’s poor design will put mountain lions directly into residential areas, creating conflicts between lions and people,” said Lynn Cullens of the Mountain Lion Foundation, in a statement. “These lions already suffer from high mortality rates, vehicle collisions, and a lack of genetic diversity due to urban sprawl and highways. Altair could be the final nail in the coffin for this crucial population of magnificent animals.”

The council approved the project late last year in a 4-1 vote, with Councilman James “Stew” Stewart dissenting. The city required an extensive environmental impact report for the development that covers traffic, air pollution, noise and other issues, including potential impact on wildlife.

The lawsuit focuses on the information contained in that report. A judge may eventually be called upon to determine if the city’s review of the project was adequate and whether the approval violates a regional land conservation plan.

Temecula Mayor Matt Rahn, who was one of the four council members who voted in favor of the project, said Thursday night that he hasn’t seen the lawsuit yet and wasn’t able to comment on specific claims.

Before joining the council, Rahn worked as the director of research and education at San Diego State University’s field stations programs, which included management of the research lab at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve.

In this capacity, Rahn either worked on studies or worked with people who were studying the movement of wildlife in the local mountain ranges.

“I’ve spent nearly two decades and the better part of my career evaluating and understanding wildlife and habitat resources,” he said Thursday night, adding that he leaned on this experience and hours of research on the particulars of the project before voting “yes.”

Ambient Principal Rob Honer said Thursday night his company is preparing a statement on the suit, which he called “disappointing.”

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