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Close-up: P. Randy Safino

Planning and engineering firm rides out economic ups and downs

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P. Randy Safino, president of the SB&O Inc. planning, engineering and surveying firm, heads a company instrumental in a wide range of landmark developments such as EastLake, the Allred-Collins Business Park and the Sprinter rail line.

Safino's father Sam founded the multidiscipline firm in 1967, along with Walt Butcher and Neil Ormonde.

While Ormonde is no longer part of SB&O, Butcher's sons Allen and Michael are both vice presidents with the company, which specializes in urban and land planning, civil engineering, land surveying and mapping, construction staking, and expert witness services.

"We're more of a service firm than anything else," Safino said.

Randy Safino

The company's first office was at Mission Gorge Road and Interstate 8 in the Grantville area, but it has since moved to Kearny Mesa. SB&O had only the one office for the first 30 years of existence; it now has offices in Temecula and Ontario to keep up with activity in the Inland Empire.

Less than a year ago the company had as many as 60 employees, but it has had to cut back significantly to 37 employees today. Safino is confident, however, that the work will pick up soon and he will be fully staffed once more.

"We're definitely bottoming out," he said. "Planners are the first ones to get hit, but they're the first ones to recover because they are projecting 12 to 24 months out. We're going to be hitting the ground running."

In the late 1980s, Safino said his firm had about 70 employees.

"That was in the time before AutoCAD (computer-aided drafting)," Safino said, adding that the company shrank to 18 employees in the wake of the recession that followed. He likes to keep the firm at about 50 employees.

"Much larger than that, it starts to get unwieldy."

For Safino, a greater challenge than the economic slowdown is the lack of readily developable land due to both development and environmental constraints.

"We'll see more and more redevelopment ... That's a good thing because it eliminates blight and keeps things vibrant," he said.

Safino, who prefers residential projects to other types of development, watched as client homebuilders such as Lennar (NYSE: LEN), D.R. Horton (NYSE: DHI) and KB Home (NYSE: KBH) severely curtailed their businesses. He said it will take some time for the homebuilding industry to fully return, but these homebuilders are gearing up for when it does.

SB&O doesn't only do jobs for the big national homebuilders, it does surveying and engineering work for smaller, locally based players as well. Many years ago, Brehm Communities of San Diego was a frequent client. Today San Diego-based Cornerstone Communities is among many others who call on SB&O for help with its projects.

The slowdown hasn't stopped SB&O from working on the EastLake Woods and EastLake Vistas developments, which will total about 2,000 residential units within the EastLake master plan in Chula Vista. Other features of the Woods and Vistas projects include 17 acres of parks, more than 12 acres of common public facilities, two schools, a hotel, a commercial area and a fire station.

The scope of the work includes producing preliminary site layouts, creating best management practices for stormwater runoff, and final engineering for more than 700 houses.

One of the most challenging jobs for SB&O, Safino said, was The Cove project, located in the city of San Jacinto in Riverside County.

The engineering firm not only had to find a way to deal with the project's own runoff, but needed to divert and treat the runoff from Mt. San Jacinto in such a way so as not to contaminate a riparian area near the project.

The 250-acre site is divided into five separate development tracts. The project consists of approximately 450 single-family residential units with lots ranging in size from 5,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet. Amenities within the project include a 14-acre school site, a 7-acre park, three tot-lot parks, one paseo park, and several pocket and linear parks.

Site improvements included a sewer lift station, a water booster pump station, and extensive detention and drainage facilities. Almost four miles of off-site sewer, water and road improvements complement the project and the surrounding area.

On the commercial/industrial side, SB&O was called upon in the late 1980s and early 1990s to engineer the 135-acre Allred-Collins Business Park. Costco (Nasdaq: COST) and REI are among the better-known tenants in that commercial/retail/industrial park. SB&O's work included feasibility study/project alternatives and cost estimates, a tentative subdivision map, public improvement plans, grading and drainage plans.

SB&O also was the engineer of record for Lankford & Associates' 100-acre Scripps Northridge Business Center overlooking Scripps Ranch and Sabre Springs, where Nokia (NYSE: NOK) is a major tenant.

The work performed by SB&O included obtaining governmental approvals, permit processing, a tentative map and a grading plan, among numerous other functions.

SB&O also did engineering work for the Sprinter, the Mission Valley sections of the trolley, and the buildings that comprise the new Westview High School for the Poway Unified High School District.

In connection with the Westview job, SB&O also handled the preliminary design of a six-lane major roadway (Camino Ruiz) between Carmel Valley Road and Route 56 -- a distance of approximately 1.4 miles.

Competitors in this area include such firms as Latitude 33, Rick Engineeringand RBF Consulting, Safino said.

Safino graduated from San Diego State University with a bachelor's in civil engineering in 1985. He obtained his California Professional Engineer license in 1989.

In his 28 years at SB&O, Safino has served in virtually every level of production within the civil and survey departments.

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