By Mandy Day
(Update: By a narrow margin, the measure has been defeated 16,727 to 16,541 in unofficial returns, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.)
Today a special election is being held in the San Diego suburb of Carlsbad. Measure A would allow Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso to construct the city’s fourth shopping mall along the south shore of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Japanese American farmer Jimmy Ukegawa has become the face of the pro-Measure A forces. More on him later in this piece, including an interview with Ukegawa. First I want to give you the background to help you understand this issue.
The 397 page “South Shoreline Specific Plan” written by Caruso Affiliated is a proposal for the land that Caruso has spent over $10.5 million campaigning to build on. Caruso Affiliated, owners of L.A.’s Grove Shopping Center, among others, have expressed interest in the property since 2012 and have spent years lobbying city officials and local organizations. The outcome of Measure A will most likely set a precedent for the entire state regarding open space development, thus making it a critical vote to watch.
The city opted to hold a special election at the cost of $500,000 rather than put the measure on a ballot during the primary or general elections held later this year. Opposition members claim this was political maneuvering in attempt to keep voter turnout low and give a leg up to proponents of the measure. Placing the measure during one of the already scheduled elections would have cost taxpayers less than $50,000. Local newspaper, The Seaside Courier wrote back in November:
The plan was brought before citizens through a Caruso-backed initiative drive that began in May. In August, the Carlsbad City Council chose to adopt the plan outright instead of placing it on the ballot, touching off a firestorm between supporters of the council action and those who felt the original petition drive was misleading, since several mailers put out by Caruso clearly stated the objective was a public vote.
Angry about attempts to bypass Carlsbad voters, locals organized and volunteers collected enough signatures in a matter of weeks to force a ballot measure.
From financing signature collection to months of mailers and signs that have covered the city, Caruso has spared no expense in selling his development to voters and people living in surrounding cities. The opposition is fierce and has gained tremendous support considering they’ve raised barely $100,000. Major funding was provided by Westfield Corporation, owner of several other large retail centers in the county. This has led to this campaign being the most expensive ballot measure in San Diego County history. In comparison, the 2012 mayoral race for the city of San Diego (population 1.337 million in 2012) cost candidates $11.9 million.
As a lifelong resident, I’ve seen our small idyllic beach town grow from a laid back paradise with miles of produce farms, to a booming suburb of almost 120,000 people. Carlsbad has long been known as one of the safest and happiest places to reside, and this particular part of the city has long been a battleground for development.
Conflict over development for this section of the city has existed for more than twenty years. My first recollection of the political tug-of-war between city officials and long-time residents was of the construction of Legoland California, an amusement park completed in the mid-1990s. The park now attracts 2 million visitors per year. In comparison, the Caruso property is estimated to bring in six times as many visitors, according to the developer. The second big battle was the city-owned golf course, which, due to rising construction costs, became the most expensive public golf course in the country. The $75 million golf course opened in 2007, has yet to turn a profit and continues to request loans from the city in excess of $1 million per year. In 2006, voters passed two propositions, C and D, to protect the agricultural land now included in the fight. Less than ten years later, voters are again faced with deciding the future of the property. Most of it is located under large power lines making it unsuitable for major commercial or residential development.
Residents, even those in opposition to Measure A, have generally been happy with the way taxpayer funds have been managed. According to the 2014 Comprehensive City Financial Report, found here, the city has assets exceeding liabilities of more than $1.75 billion. The proposed development, will contribute $2.5 million in sales taxes to the city’s coffers, according to proponents of the new shopping center. To many in the opposition, the development will not save the city from impending financial ruin, nor is the money desperately needed for any particular use.
Many of the promises made by the developer, like miles of hiking trails not currently built along the south shore, are not impossible for the city to complete without the new shopping center. Part of Proposition C set aside funding for said trails and the city has yet to build them according to organizations working against the lagoon development. Citizens for North County, the primary organization working against Measure A, have said local infrastructure is already unequipped to handle the current traffic that flows on one of I-5’s narrowest sections in San Diego, and doubling the daily car trips on the freeway and local streets, will turn our calm beach town into a hellish nightmare already suffering from the city’s rapid growth.
Local farmer, Jimmy Ukegawa, a third generation Japanese American farmer said in an interview with AsAmNews that he will be out of business in ten years if Measure A fails. He graciously spent half an hour, late at night on the eve of polling to discuss life in our hometown, the future of his business, and the plan put forth by the billionaire developer. His grandparents began farming in the Orange County city of Tustin before the Second World War. Ukegawa’s father graduated from Tustin High School before the family was incarcerated in Poston, Arizona with farming families from north San Diego County. His father enlisted and became a paratrooper during the war, and settled with the rest of the family afterwards in San Diego. Ukegawa’s grandfather had died young and the family matriarch supported her family as a single parent.
Ukegawa’s father began farming in Carlsbad in the 1950’s where Jimmy graduated from high school a few decades later. He went on to study plant and soil biology at the University of California before returning to San Diego to help his parents run the business. Once farming in the coastal cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad, and Del Mar, Ukegawa’s family has downsized their business over the last sixty years to cope with rising costs in production. The family used to farm nearly two thousand acres across the three cities and now plant 27 acres of strawberries along the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Each acre produces five to six thousand twelve-pound boxes. He told AsAmNews that he stays in business by running several fruit stands; providing 100 school tours per year; selling strawberries at local farmer’s markets; and operating a You Pick strawberry field on the proposed development land. He currently leases the land he farms on a year-to-year basis from San Diego Gas and Electric, the local utility.
If Measure A passes, development company Caruso Affiliated will purchase the land from the utility and develop part of that land into a 585,000 square foot mall along with 3,700 parking spaces along the freeway and on south side of the lagoon. Caruso has promised to expand the farming operation; build an education center, public market, and farm to table restaurant; and fund aforementioned trails he plans to make accessible to the public.
Ukegawa is a firm believer in the developer’s plans. He claims that residents in other California cities are grateful for Caruso developed shopping centers, and that they have provided the community with a gathering space rather than just appease the desire for more retail options. He has not contributed any of his own money to the Yes on A campaign. He said, “I am not a politician. I am just a farmer trying to stay in business.” Ukegawa has accused the opposition of misleading voters about him and his intentions as a farmer. Many residents on both sides of the argument have dealt with vandalized signs, damaged property, and stolen signs. Ukegawa told AsAmNews that his young daughter’s sign was destroyed in the family’s yard.
Ukegawa sounded tired and worn down by the campaign. There is no doubt that regardless of the outcome, it has taken its toll on him.
I had many judgments about Mr. Ukegawa before I spoke with him. I saw him in my nightmares, rolling in piles of cash given to him by the big, bad Los Angeles billionaire bent on destroying the town I love so dearly. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t trust Rick Caruso, but I don’t think Jimmy Ukegawa is deserving of a lot of the abuse he’s been on the receiving end of. I think he’s just a guy trying to save his business, and he believes this is the best shot he has. He told me so as we reminisced about our college years in California’s East Bay and the good old days of Cbad, where we had space to breathe and enjoy life. As the city grows, those spaces are harder and harder to find.
I believe he’s sincere in what he told me during our half hour conversation. I also believe he’s being as misled about this proposed development as much as anyone else. He’s just the face of the local businessman trying to survive, as portrayed by Caruso Affiliated. This measure isn’t “Open Space the Right Way”. It isn’t going to “Save the Strawberry Fields” a recycled slogan from the 2006 campaign. We, the voters, have the right to decide what happens to this land. It’s land located across the lagoon from my childhood home.
I want the Carlsbad Strawberry Company to stay solvent and in business for years to come. I also hope that Measure A fails. I dream of it failing so resoundingly that we never have to see Caruso or say his name again. This isn’t his home. This isn’t where his childhood memories are nor where he hopes to create new ones with the people he loves. Mr. Ukegawa and I don’t just share Japanese heritage that puts so much emphasis on family legacy and honor. He shares his hometown with me. We’re neighbors, even if we have a hundred thousand other neighbors. That mindset is what comprises the heart and soul of Carlsbad. And with so few Japanese Americans in the area, we are connected, whether we want to be or not.
The campaign has been long and nasty. Many haven’t even attempted to read the proposal. I’ll admit, I couldn’t get through the entire thing. I did manage a keyword search and was disturbed at the number of times the word “exempt” appears. Sixty times according to my browser. More disturbing is that the word “amend” appeared nearly 270 times. Because the proposal allows Caruso Affiliated plans to supercede city ordinances and rules.
It’s been an ongoing struggle to decide what happens to this nearly untouched piece of prime real estate. Supporters and opponents have both been riddled with accusations of deception, harassment, and dirty politics. The debate has been so intense, it’s drawn in local students who are too young to vote. As the end is in sight, many of us, on both sides, will be happy to see it end.
Note: As a voter and resident of the City of Carlsbad, I have been a staunch opponent of Measure A. As a journalist, I have actively tried to separate my personal opinions from my interview with Mr. Ukegawa. Let me know how I did.
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