Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
The County Board of Supervisors will soon have its say on Lilac Hills Ranch, a massive project that would add about 1,700 homes and 5,000 people to Valley Center – a rural area in North County filled with rolling hills, avocado and citrus groves and a population of only about 20,000.
The developer, Accretive Investments, has clashed with community members and local agencies because the project diverges sharply from the county’s expensive new general plan, a blueprint for growth that’s supposed to guide decision-making on developments just like Lilac Hills. And yet, county planners have recommended Lilac Hills be approved.
The Planning Commission will vote on whether to recommend the project on Sept. 11, and the project will then go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval likely before the end of the year.
How did Lilac Hills Ranch make it this far?
Accretive has never heard a “no” that it took seriously.
The company tried to get a family, the Hernandezes, to sign over their rights to a road a couple of years ago. The family refused. A year later, Accretive sued them for a leaky septic tank.
In 2009, planners said the project diverged so sharply from the county’s long-term plans, they declined to even give it a chance at being approved. Accretive successfully appealed that decision to the county’s Planning Commission, and the project stayed alive.
A local fire board has maintained it can’t reach all of Lilac Hills’ residents in an acceptable time frame. Accretive started donating to candidates running for the fire board. After years of circular negotiations, the county finally decided they would let the issue slide – for now. County staff recommended the Board of Supervisors approve the project, under the condition that the developer and the district figure out financing a new station that would service Lilac Hills in the future – something they’ve tried to do for years without success.
Every time the company has faced a hurdle, it’s found a loophole or just bullied its way through.
The project hasn’t really changed, but county planners’ opinion of it did.
After the Planning Commission overruled county staff and initiated the project’s approval process, planners didn’t suddenly change their tune on the project. That came later.
Until 2012, the planning department repeatedly outlined the same problems with the project – namely that it’s inconsistent with county growth plans and doesn’t meet fire safety standards.
The developer never changed the project in a substantive way. But that same county department in changed its tune in July, recommending the Board of Supervisors approve the project.
Lilac Hills Ranch could redefine a county planning standard meant to prevent sprawl in rural areas.
The county’s growth plan prohibits putting big, dense developments (like Lilac Hills Ranch) in the middle of nowhere. Developers can only do this if they meet a widely accepted environmental standard that’s based on where the project is located.
But the plan also has a loophole that lets projects go forward if they meet an “equivalent” standard. For a long time, that equivalent was undefined. The county has finally rolled out what the “equivalent” would mean, especially for Lilac Hills. It was created by a subsidiary of the National Association of Homebuilders, a developer trade organization.
The new standard is less restrictive than the original. One county planning commissioner event said it would essentially allow a large project to be built anywhere.
If Lilac Hills Ranch is approved, environmental and community groups are likely to sue over this “equivalent” standard.
The developers are counting on County Supervisor Bill Horn’s vote, but he might have to sit this one out.
Developer-friendly Supervisor Bill Horn owns 34 acres of land right around the corner from Lilac Hills Ranch. If the new development brings in thousands of new people and new infrastructure, it could make his property a much easier sell for future development — and therefore make his property more valuable.
“There’s definitely something there, in the way he could potentially personally benefit from his vote,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles and vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, told us.
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has guidelines on whether a decision would have “reasonably foreseeable material financial effect” for a politician. But Horn hasn’t called the commission to ask whether he should recuse himself from a vote.
Horn’s also been the recipient of lots of Accretive campaign donations, and the company’s lead lobbyist worked for the supervisor’s office more than 10 years ago.