This post has been updated.
County Supervisor Bill Horn is asking state officials whether he should step aside from voting on Lilac Hills Ranch, a major contested development project in Valley Center.
A spokesman for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission confirmed Tuesday that Horn made an official “request for advice” to the agency, over whether he should abstain from voting on the project, which is located just over a mile from his 34-acre property.
Horn’s recusal from next month’s scheduled vote would be a major blow to Lilac Hills Ranch, which has been working its way to approval for 10 years. He is expected to support the project and has received substantial campaign contributions from the developer. One of Horn’s former staffers is the project’s primary lobbyist. Without Horn’s support, two county supervisors could kill the development.
The county counsel’s office said Horn emailed the FPCC last week about the issue, a few days before a law firm representing preservationist group the Cleveland National Forest Foundation sent a letter to the county counsel alleging the project would have a “reasonably foreseeable material financial effect” on the supervisor. The FPCC request came just over a month after Voice of San Diego first reported the potential conflict of interest.
“This is far from a new issue for county counsel,” said Michael Workman, county spokesman.
The FPPC spokesman said he couldn’t divulge any other details because the matter now falls under attorney-client privilege. The FPPC’s advice letter would become public once the legal division completes it and sends it to Horn.
At issue is the 34 acres Horn owns near the southern edge of the sprawling planned community in the rolling hills of Valley Center. Horn’s property isn’t adjacent to the project, and the board’s decision to approve it wouldn’t directly change the development rights on his property.
But the rural and semi-rural area — with winding roads and sparsely arranged housing — surrounding Horn’s property would be transformed once Lilac Hills Ranch and its 1,700 homes, a school, commercial businesses and improved infrastructure was fully built.
By turning the area into a new village center, the project indirectly affects Horn enough that he shouldn’t vote on it, the letter from law firm Shute Mihaly & Weinberger alleges.
“The area surrounding (Horn’s) property is currently rural and has not historically been subject to much development pressure,” the letter says. “However, the project would bring a significant amount of residential and commercial development to this area and would also serve as a springboard for future development in the region. Accordingly, the project would make development on and around Supervisor Horn’s property much more likely, thereby increasing the development potential of his property and making it more valuable.”
The letter also argues that because the county’s plan for future development specifies that new housing should be built near existing housing, approving Lilac Hills Ranch would essentially clear the way for new development on properties nearby, like Horn’s.
The firm also dug up previous FPPC comment letters where officials were encouraged to recuse themselves from votes that presented issues similar to those facing Horn.
Two weeks ago, developers behind Lilac Hills Ranch alleged one of the county planning commissioners, Michael Beck, shouldn’t have been able to vote on the project because he worked for an environmental group that opposed it.
Beck didn’t recuse himself, but the project passed anyway. Four commissioners voted in favor, and three, including Beck, voted against it.
The Board of Supervisors vote is the ultimate decision on the project. The Planning Commission vote just serves as a recommendation to the supervisors.
Update: An earlier version of this story said the FPCC received a letter from Horn’s office the same day the Cleveland National Forest Foundation brought concerns about Horn to the county counsel. After this post published, the county counsel provided documents showing they emailed the FPCC about the issue last week. The post has been updated to reflect the timing.