Old Town nature center won’t cause extinction of mountain lions, developer contends

A small nature center at the southern tip of the 270-acre Altair property won’t cause the extinction of local mountain lions, according to the San Diego developer that wants to build a series of villages in the foothills west of Old Town Temecula.

“Construction of the I-15 freeway decades ago is what isolated this population from other mountain lion populations and resulted in a lack of genetic diversity in the Santa Ana Mountains,” said Rob Honer, principal for Ambient Communities, in a statement.

A coalition of environmentalists filed a lawsuit against the Altair project, which was approved late last year by the Temecula City Council in a 4-1 vote, earlier this month, arguing the environmental documentation for the project is flawed.

If the suit moves forward, a judge would be asked to review the documentation — which looks at how the project impacts traffic, wildlife and air quality — and determine whether the city’s review met the state’s requirements.

Honer said the nature center was the result of a compromise forged by the city in response to the comments by environmentalists who objected to more intensive uses planned for the 55-acre parcel at the southern tip of the property, which included a university site or a hospital site.

“As now approved, this 55-acre parcel consists of approximately 51 acres of open space and a four-acre pad for a small nature & cultural center and parking area; more than a 95 percent reduction from the previously envisioned ‘civic use’,” he wrote.

As for the alleged impact to a threatened species, Honer said the Santa Ana mountain range west of Temecula is a 700 square-mile area that is home to a population of about 30 to 35 mountain lions.

“Over a long term, the lack of genetic diversity in a species will lead to the species’ extinction. Although we are sympathetic to this reality, this is a regional issue that exists regardless of Altair’s development. Data provided by leading scientists has shown that mountain lions have rarely stepped foot on any portion of the 270-acre Altair specific plan property, and that the project is sited on the very edge of the existing migration corridors,” he wrote. “Altair, with additional dedication of lands within the key habitat linkages and funding for expanding those linkages, has embraced this issue and gone above and beyond any requirements to help ensure the long-term viability of the Santa Ana mountain lion population.”

The environmentalists who filed the lawsuit contend any activity on the southern parcel effectively severs the last remaining corridor for the mountain lions, a variation on the argument that was used by foes of Granite Construction’s plan to build a quarry on land west of the freeway near Rainbow.

The Altair project, which has been in the planning pipeline for years, calls for 1,750 new housing units and a new “western bypass” that will run from Temecula Parkway to Rancho California Road.

The housing plan calls for a 750-unit cap on the number of apartments, or at most 50 percent of the units that end up getting built if the number is lower than 1,750, a concession won by the council in a last-minute negotiation from the dais. The rest of the units will be single-family homes, condos and live/work units laid out in villages surrounding a large park, staircase to Old Town and a school site.

Supporters of the project include local business leaders who say it will “activate” Old Town by putting thousands of new residents within walking distance of its shops and restaurants. Opponents say it will overtax the infrastructure of an area that is already clogged by traffic and “scar” the hillside.

  1. The real problem with the proposed Nature Center is that it is necessary to the developer since fill-dirt from the extensive grading for the high-density Village G and the Western Bypass needs to go somewhere. So instead of taking the dirt away the developer wants to go the cheap route and make a building pad. This covers pristine landscape, so the pad was changed to a use that seemed more palatable to concerned citizens. The Nature Center would not serve a good purpose. There would be only about 30+ acres of nature left. The parcels beyond those acres are restricted and are in the middle of the last wildlife crossing for I-15 in the area.
    The southern parcels should remain without impact (that includes Village G) since the Western Bypass and the rest of the development will gobble up most of the greenery of the escarpment.

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