My all time favorite columnist in San Diego, the mysterious Ms. Beak, calls out Ecke and the city council. Classic.
Encinitas calls itself the “Flower Capital of the World,” which confuses many visitors. After all, even the most brain-dead ’Zonie knows the famous flower fields are actually in Carlsbad. The only overt sign of flowers in Encinitas are the buckets of plastic-wrapped roses for sale in the local 7-Eleven.
Encinitas proclaims itself the “Flower Capital of World” primarily due its status as the home to the Paul Ecke Ranch, the company that almost single-handedly turned poinsettias into an annoying Christmas tradition.
More than 70 percent of the poinsettias grown in North America and more than 50 percent of the poinsettias sold worldwide originate at the Ecke Ranch, according to the company. So maybe Flower Capital of the World is a bit of reach, but at the very least the city could legitimately call itself the Poinsettia Capital of the World.
But there is a wee bit of a problem. The Eckes say they can no longer afford to compete in the cutthroat flower biz unless they upgrade their facilities and “modernize” their greenhouses. To raise money, they want the city to allow them to build more than 200 houses on some of their land zoned for agriculture.
Cutting through the fertilizer, the Eckes are, in fact, simply pointing out that growing condos in Encinitas is far more profitable than growing flowers.
The Eckes’ operation is based on choice land on the hillside just east of I-5, the type of location that makes for developer wet dreams. When the family first moved to the area in 1923, Encinitas was just another dot on the map, a cool place to surf and camp on the beach. There was no interstate, never mind a Taco Bell.
Needless to say, that was long ago, as anyone who has driven Encinitas Boulevard on a Friday night can attest. The Ecke property is now smack dab in the middle of one of the hottest real-estate markets south of Irvine, a thriving metropolis of tract homes, fast food chains, Super Target stores and swell car washes.
To a very large degree, the Eckes have already cashed in on the rush to pave Encinitas. In the mid-’90s they sold off 850 acres of prime hillside land that was carved into a sea of stucco, shopping centers and various city-approved recreational facilities. At the time, they whined about “saving the ranch,” arguing that unless they could plant more townhomes, the flower business might have to move to, say, Fallbrook. Apparently the millions they earned off that deal wasn’t enough, and now the Eckes are once again tossing out the sob story.
In essence, they’re saying that developing the land is the only way to raise capital to save the poinsettia business. They can’t get a bank loan. They can’t run up the old credit card. They absolutely must build more than 200 houses on one of the last greenbelts left in the area, or the Ecke Ranch will go bye-bye.
Since the Ecke Ranch is a private company and doesn’t release any details, the city will have to take the Eckes’ word that times are real tough in the poinsettia game, despite the family’s dominance of the industry.
Much like the Chargers and Padres, the Eckes say they are committed to staying in town—even while they’re threatening to leave if they don’t get their way. They also play the “jobs card,” noting as often as possible that the ranch employs more than 300 employees “during peak seasons,” making it “one of the largest private employers in north San Diego County.”
The Eckes don’t explain how many people they employ outside “peak seasons,” nor how many of those employees are “poinsettia waterers.” But even if the plans are approved, the Eckes’ poinsettia operation will dwindle to a skimpy 20 acres, and it certainly won’t create new jobs or grow the all-mighty tax base.
In other words, the Eckes’ core business these days is really land development. No matter how they spin it, their motivation to “raise capital” is the same as every other developer who would like to “raise capital” by turning farmland into a row of duplexes. The Eckes are simply using the flower business as a front, asking for special favors in order to subsidize a less profitable aspect of their business. It’s the same as Alex Spanos asking for a variance to build apartments on city controlled open space simply because the Chargers suck.
Any other landowner in Encinitas would have to get on all fours and squeal like a pig to get prime land rezoned for another grove of stucco palaces. After all, city leaders hold all the cards in these little poker tourneys.
The smart move would be for the city to tell the Eckes, “Eat me.” Save the land. Make ’em sweat. If the Eckes really need the big payday, they’ll come back with a better plan, one that might actually help the city’s quality of life.
Instead, the Encinitas city leaders are negotiating like crack ’hos desperate for a fix. They’re fast-tracking the project, rubber-stamping every new development proposal from the Eckes, pursuing the same shrewd community planning strategy that turned the El Camino Real corridor into a clogged land of Long John Silver franchises.
If they keep it up, no one will call it the “Flower Capital of the World” anymore, even if the Eckes keep their operation alive. Heck, they won’t even call it Encinitas. It will be known simply as “South Tustin.”