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Petition filed for Carlsbad retail project

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A group spearheaded by Los Angeles retail developer Rick Caruso has gathered more than 20,000 signatures to put an initiative on next year's ballot to allow a Nordstrom-anchored retail mall on 26 acres of land surrounding Carlsbad's Agua Hedionda Lagoon, while preserving 176 acres for open space.

The signatures -- which must be verified by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters -- are more than twice the 9,800 signatures needed to put the measure before the Carlsbad City Council.

If the registrar verifies enough signatures, the City Council will have to decide to either put the measure before voters next June or adopt the measure on its own, after commissioning and reviewing an independent environmental, transportation and land use report.

In return for the 26-acre space, Caruso -- founder and CEO of Caruso Affiliated -- has pledged to create hiking and biking trails, picnic areas and an education center at Agua Hedionda, a lagoon just north of the strawberry fields along Cannon Road and Interstate 5.

On its website, Caruso Affiliated pledges to create "a warm and inviting space … that will connect seamlessly to the nearby strawberry fields, the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and the surrounding open space."

Although some residents have expressed concerns about the traffic and congestion that a new retail center could create in an area already saturated with outlet malls and auto showrooms, Caruso Affiliated pledges this development will be different.

"Caruso Affiliated does not build 'shopping malls,'" the company's website said. "We have torn up that old template and created something entirely new -- open-air lifestyle destinations that attract people through great design, architecture, landscaping and a focus on working at a neighborhood scale."

The firm's completed projects include The Grove, a 600,000-square-foot, upper-end retail center surrounding Los Angeles' historic Farmers' Market; The Waterside at Marina del Rey; The Promenade at Westlake; The Commons at Calabasas; and The Village at Moorpark.

The Sierra Club San Diego Chapter has not yet weighed in on the project.

"We're getting calls from people up there, but we'll wait to make any decisions until after the registrar reviews the signatures," said Richard Miller, who oversees communications and development for the group.

The nonprofit Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation strongly approves the project, saying it will "further enhance the preservation and restoration of the lagoon," according to Maureen Simons, who chairs the group.

The foundation has received strong financial support from Caruso Affiliated, which has sponsored a number of its community events. Caruso development manager Michael Gazzano sits on the foundation’s board.

Caruso has been laying the groundwork for the Carlsbad development since at least 2012, when it bought a 48-acre parcel of land along the strawberry fields at Cannon Road from San Diego Gas & Electric.

SDG&E said it had considered a number of other competing bids, but decided that Caruso would be the best fit.

"SDG&E believes it is important that any use of the Cannon Road property reflects the interests, values and input of the Carlsbad community," Pam Fair, who oversees SDG&E's environmental and operations support, said at the time.

Over the past three years, Caruso said, the company has held meetings with "thousands of residents" in "hundreds of meetings" about its so-called 85/15 plan, which aims to preserve 85 percent of the open space around the lagoon while developing 15 percent.

The plan has won the strong support of Jimmy Ukegawa, president of the Carlsbad Strawberry Co., the family-owned farm that owns the neighboring strawberry fields.

Although the retail development will eat into some of the strawberry field's frontage land on Interstate 5, the plan will preserve the vast majority of the fields. And Caruso says it will encourage restaurants at the retail development to purchase fruit directly from the field.

"It will help keep my family’s strawberry farm sustainable and economically viable for generations to come,” Ukegawa said.

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