Update April 20: The Design Review Committee hearing slated for April 23 has been postponed.
By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Jeff Phair, right, shares information with area resident Anthony McIvor, left, at site of planned La Mesa Summit Estates.
April 12, 2018 (La Mesa) – On a hilltop above the Serramar development in La Mesa’s Eastridge area, local builder Jeff Phair hopes to build La Mesa Summit Estates. The proposal calls for 30 new homes—each with multi-generational suites complete with separate entrances, stacked washer/dryers, and media centers. They’re designed for families that want space for parents, grandparents or grown children---and the concept came out of extensive meetings with neighbors.
“All developers don’t wear black hats,” an article in The Phair Company’s newsletter is titled. The company has a policy of “cooperative community based planning” that calls for meeting with neighbors and incorporating their input into designs, where possible, before ever approaching city staff of elected officials.
In a tour of the vacant hilltop lot, Phair told East County Magazine, “I spent nine months talking to neighbors and the city before submitting plans.” He held a meeting at the community center and invited 400 residents. At that session and others to follow, he received input, ideas and concerns from some 100 area residents who participated.
Those sessions led to substantial changes. When nearby neighbors objected to having sunset views blocked, Phair says he reduced some two-story homes to single story residences and agreed to lower a portion of the land. He also reduced the total number of homes proposed from 39 to 30, in order to leave more open space.
Some Serramar residents told Phair that their parents or in-laws needed to move in with them and their families needed more space. Other aging residents told him they had knee or hip problems and wanted single story homes.
So he went back to the drawing board and came up with multi-generational suites for every home—a concept that he says has big appeal not only to some Serramar residents, but also to immigrant cultures including Asian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander families. “They value their elders and don’t put them in rest homes,” he explains.
Open space was a big concern for many area residents. Some mistakenly believed the land was owned by the city and designated as open space. “Some said that they were told that by a realtor selling homes at Serramar,” says Phair, who tracked down sales brochures for that project but couldn’t find any such promise in writing.
Residents may have had this property confused with an adjacent lot that is designated by the city as open space, but which a landowner keeps fenced and refuses to allow the public to access, says Phair. He says he tried calling the owner and when that effort proved unsuccessful, he amended plans at La Mesa Summit Estates to include a trail that could ultimately connect to the next door site should its owner, or a future owner, decide to allow public access.
“Some neighbors sued me, claiming their dogs had a prescriptive easement to walk through the property,” Phair acknowledges. “That cost me six months and $50,000 in legal fees.” He won, with a judge rejecting neighbor’s arguments.
But Phair was sensitive to neighbors’ wishes for an area to walk their dogs, as well as concerns of others who enjoy walking on the site or coming up to walk fireworks on the 4th of July.
“Neighbors asked, `Can you build a park?’” he recalls. “We said `Yes.’”
Serramar, which has some 300 homes, was built without any park. Nowadays, a park would be required on a property of that size, says Phair, who developed the Eastlake master planned community in Otay Mesa, one of the first to build a pocket park.
He agreed to create a pocket park at La Mesa Summit Estates, even though he wasn’t required to do so. It won’t have playground equipment, but will have a walking path, trees and shade for neighbors who want to enjoy nature in their neighborhood.
On our tour, Phair also invited Anthony McIvor, a resident of nearby Eastlake who was concerned about losing pedestrian access as well as views. While changes to the site plan will protect views for immediate neighbors, some farther away may still be impacted, Phair concedes.
But he had some good news for McIvor on the access issue. Phair explained that pedestrians will be able to have permanent access at the main gate—a guarantee he says will be written into the Covenants, Codes and Restrictions (CC&Rs) for the property in perpetuity.
“My concern is access, McIvor said, then told Phair, “You’ve addressed that in creative ways.”
Phair addressed a misperception circulating, noting that his site does not connect to La Mesa’s series of hidden staircases enjoyed by walkers in the city.
Another concern raised by residents was homeless people camping out on the vacant lot and teens partying with boomboxes there. So Phair cleaned up the site and erected a fence around the property.
That’s come at a cost, with frequent vandalism including spray-painting boulders and knocking down a sign, actions he attributes to those displaced. He adds that he gave the homeless two weeks notice to vacate the property before cleaning it up and putting up the fence.
When clearing a firebreak around the site’s perimeter sent rats, squirrels and snakes scurrying and slithering into neighbors’ yards, Phair put up owl boxes. “I don’t use poisons,” he says, noting that poison harms wildlife including birds of prey that catch rodents and snakes. The site will also have two holding ponds.
Although the company touts its environmental conscience, none of the native vegetation on the site will be preserved here. However Phair has agreed to buy land in Jamul that will be preserved as mitigation, since La Mesa has no natural open space left to protect. He is also saving some rare cacti on the site that will be transplanted elsewhere, including some to neighbors’ yards.
Some residents concerned about blasting damage claims when Serramar was built may be relieved to hear that new regulations require underground blasting instead of surface blasts. In addition, developers are now required to inspect every home within the blasting radius before and after it occurs. “That will cost me $150,000,” says Phair.
Such costs help explain why the project won’t have any units designated as affordable housing. The completed homes will be approximately 2,600 to 3,100 square feet on lots under 12,000 square feet apiece.
The architectural style will be simple, or what Phair describes as “California ranch style, with lots of stone and wood,” says Phair. “These will not be over the top.” You won’t see any red tile roofs or large columns.
Phair also asked Serramar residents if they would like him to build a gate for their community. When most of those who responded said yes, he agreed to make that happen.
He adds that the homes at his development will be built with post-tension concrete that will have footings around it and rebar crosshatched in the concrete, so that in an earthquake, the foundations will sway, but not crack.
“I’m a community-based developer,” explains Phair, who grew up in a small town. “I built my first house when I was 13 years old with my dad my and grandpa. I really enjoy interacting with people.” He says if something is not good for a community, he wouldn’t build it.
“I’m not an out of town developer,” says Phair, who lives in Bonita in a development of about 30 homes that he built. “If I didn’t do something right, the neighbors would be knocking at my door.” He says he’s also given his phone number out to neighbors where he lives, as well as neighbors near the proposed La Mesa Summit Estates.
Before Phair bought the property a year and a half ago, there was a proposal to build a mega-church on the site. Phair says that was scrapped after neighbors objected to hundreds or more vehicles that the church would have brought into the community for services and other activities. The site is zoned for 39 homes, so for some neighbors, 30 houses built with accommodations to many community concerns may seem the best option.
His tactic of community engagement and listening to neighbors’ needs appears to be producing positive results. “We already have 100 on a wait list—and 70 percent of those live right here in Serramar,” he says.
The proposed La Mesa Summit Estates project was tentatively set for consider by the La Mesa Design Review committee on April 23rdin the conference room at city hall but has been postponed. If approved by the committee, it will next be on the agenda for the La Mesa Planning Commission at a public hearing about 30 days later. If it wins approval there, it would next advance to the La Mesa City Council for final approval.