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From the summit of Double Peak Mountain, it’s possible to see all that San Marcos has become. At 1,644 feet above sea level, most of the city is visible, compressed into a manageable field of view. Looking northeast, the stately buildings of Cal State San Marcos stand on the side of a hill, windows gazing toward hundreds of acres of subdivisions to the north and west. Farther west is a solid clump of retail establishments —- Restaurant Row, Edwards Cinema, Fry’s Electronics, a new Lowe’s hardware store.

For the rest of the picture, a short hike west along the ridge line brings you to the second of the mountain’s two peaks. From there, you can see the unincorporated community of Lake San Marcos, a long, thin slash of water surrounded by hundreds of homes and a green golf course.

On the other side of Double Peak, the southwestern side, is the city’s newest planned community, the 3,398-unit San Elijo Hills development. Dug into the flanks of the Cerro de las Posas Mountains, steep streets lead to spacious homes. On the horizon is Batiquitos Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.

There was a time, in the late 1980s, when the view from Double Peak would have looked down on a much more modest cluster of homes and businesses. Where the university now sits, a chicken ranch once thrived. The new Mission Hills High School on Mission Road was built on part of a former dairy.

Today, San Marcos is a city trying to catch up with itself.

Take Rancho Santa Fe Road, for example. As thousands of commuters, many who live in the San Elijo Hills development, sit bumper-to-bumper on the winding two-lane road, they can observe an assortment of heavy construction equipment slowly making progress on widening Rancho Santa Fe from two lanes to four.

Likewise, construction crews work to improve San Marcos Boulevard, even as cars sit in traffic, waiting for a chance to head east or west to Highway 78.

Watching infrastructure catch up after developments have gone up is frustrating for Beckie Garrett, an English teacher at San Marcos High School.

“What is the point of having a nice home in a nice neighborhood if you can’t ever leave it?” Garrett wondered.

When she started teaching in San Marcos 28 years ago, Garrett said some of her students rode horses to school. The drive from her home in West San Marcos on Questhaven Road was easy back then. But these days, she and her fellow teachers spend time trying to figure out alternate routes to avoid the most congested roads through town.

“You’ve got to be wily to get where you’re going,” she said.

As the city has grown, Garrett said she and other longtime residents have trouble accepting that San Marcos is no small village anymore.

“I think we’re a little schizophrenic, maybe,” she said. “Some of us may still picture ourselves as a small town, but that’s not the reality at all.”

Accelerating growth

Statistics show that the city’s growth has only accelerated in the last few years.

The San Diego Association of Goverments’ population estimates for 2003 underscore the city’s rapidly rising population. The city has added nearly 9,000 residents since the 2000 Census for a county-leading 16 percentage point population increase. By comparison, SANDAG estimates neighboring Escondido grew by only 3 percent from 2000 to 2003.

The value of all the property inside city limits has shown a similar explosion.

San Diego County Assessor’s records show a 17 percent growth in the city’s tax base over the last two fiscal years, reaching $5.2 billion in late 2003.

When ranked against each of the county’s 18 cities, San Marcos was first in terms of local tax base growth, not only recently, but when compared to five years ago. Since 1994, the city’s tax base has more than doubled. Only Carlsbad showed more tax base growth over the last decade.

The way Darrell Gentry sees it, the city’s present infrastructure problems are the last sign of a community’s maturation from suburb to college town.

Gentry served one term on the San Marcos City Council and directed the city’s planning department from 1979 through 1985.

He pointed to Cal State’s decision to build its new campus on Twin Oaks Valley Road in 1990 as the turning point that ushered in the city’s current state of fast-forward development.

“Before the university, there was a lot of debate about no growth and stopping growth,” Gentry said, noting that the city used to limit the number of building permits it issued each year. “Once the university came, we kind of lost that issue. It’s still there, but definitely not as much as it was.”

In addition to the thousands of students the Palomar Community College campus on Mission Road draws, the university has added another layer of student commuters to the city’s already strained infrastructure.

Fall 2003 enrollment at CSUSM totaled 7,777 students with a median age of 22. The university had 13,000 alumni as of summer 2002.

In a belated acknowledgement that the city’s infrastructure was not keeping pace with exploding development, the San Marcos City Council doubled developer fees last year, significantly increasing the amount of money that will be available for future public projects from roads to parks and schools. Major road improvements, such as the extension of Twin Oaks Valley Road to the San Elijo Hills development, are funded and in the works.

The waiting game

But the here and now is still frustrating for Mary Carruthers and her family. The Carruthers purchased their San Elijo Hills home in 2000, one of the first families to relocate to the new planned community where new homes sell from $300,000 to $700,000.

When the Carruthers moved into their new home three years ago, Carruthers said the understanding was that improvements to Rancho Santa Fe Road were to start immediately.

“We’ve lived here for three years now and it’s still not finished,” Carruthers said.

That’s not to say she doesn’t like where she lives —- far from it. The planned community offers a range of amenities she said she appreciates, including a grocery store, a 19-acre community park, elementary school, a cafe and eventually a library and other projects.

“In a few years, when they get all of the wrinkles ironed out, it’s going to be a great community,” Carruthers said.

Much of the city’s growth can be attributed to its successful retail district.

San Marcos has long been known countywide as a good place to go if you’re looking for a bite to eat or a new sofa. From Highway 78, it’s impossible to miss Furniture Row with its collection of store fronts selling everything from armoires to La-Z-Boys. And on San Marcos Boulevard, there is the Old California Restaurant Row, a collection of 20 eateries that offer everything from burgers and brew to Rockin Baja Lobster.

The late Jim Eubank was the first entrepreneur to see the city’s potential as a retail hub. Eubank died Monday, March 1, several weeks after he was interviewed for this story.

A quarter century ago, Eubank eyeballed a chicken ranch on San Marcos Boulevard, then known as Encinitas Boulevard, and figured it would be a good spot to open a restaurant.

“That first restaurant, you couldn’t eat outside because of the flies from all the chickens,” Eubank recalled.

Though he can’t remember exactly what that first restaurant served, he said he’s convinced that Restaurant Row played a significant role in the city’s economic development. After all, anyone who’s in the real estate business knows that restaurants are one of the most risky investments possible. So the way Eubank sees it, the success of restaurants in San Marcos helped convince other retail establishments, such as Edwards Cinema and Fry’s Electronics, to give the city a chance.

“They look at us and they say, ‘If restaurants can go, anything can go,’ ” Eubank said.

However, the city’s successful retail climate has also attracted the attention of Wal-Mart Inc. which just opened a new store on Nordahl Road. While the new Wal-Mart on the city’s eastern edge was built without much community angst, a second location planned for the city’s western edge, near San Elijo Hills, has garnered nothing but ill will.

There was so much ill will, in fact, that 60 percent of San Marcos residents voted on March 2 to block the behemoth retail chain from building the city’s second Wal-Mart at Melrose Drive and Rancho Santa Fe Road.

Carruthers was opposed to the new Wal-Mart as are many of her neighbors. She said the store would have aggravated traffic jams on Rancho Santa Fe Road. But her fear is not enough to convince her to flee San Marcos. In the end, it seems there are more important factors than traffic that keep the Carruthers where they are.

“My family lives in Olivenhain and my husband’s family lives a half hour north. We still live where we live because grandma’s 10 minutes away,” she said. San Marcos by the numbers:

Incorporated: 1963
Area: 24 sq miles (15,375acres)
1990 2003 2010 (projected)
Total population 39,307 63528 77,645
Hispanic 10,721 24,605 31,538
Black 499 1,193 1,727
White 28,586 32,954 36,796
Asian/Pac Islander 1,063 3,061 5,044
Other 249 1,715 2,540
Median age 31 33 35
Households 13,783 20,251 24,482
Median Household Income $32,183 $51,986 $54,940
Inflation adjusted (2003 CPI) $47,631 $51,986 $54,940
Median house price
2002 2003 % chg
92069 $307,000 $361,000 18%
Total assessed property value (tax base)
2000-2001 2003-2004
$3.4 billion $5.2 billion
Violent crimes per 1,000 residents (FBI Crime Index)
1999 2001 2002
San Marcos 29.2 26.5 24.2
San Diego County 36.1 35.7 35.6
Sources: San Diego Association of Governments, San Diego Association of Realtors, San Diego County Assessor
Contact staff writer Paul Sisson at (760) 901-4087 or psisson@nctimes.com