With its decision to have voters weigh in on Lilac Hills Ranch, a sprawling housing project in Valley Center, the project’s developers don’t just see a more viable path to approval – they also see a way around many of the issues that have long dogged the project.

Lilac Hills Ranch tried going through the county’s normal permitting and environmental review process for nearly 11 years – spending more than $3 million on fees and doing three environmental impact reports, according to Accretive Investments.

But at the end of last year, two obstacles made Accretive opt instead for a countywide voter initiative.

One was word that Supervisor Bill Horn, who was expected to vote in favor of the project, would recuse himself from the County Board of Supervisors’ vote on the project. He had a conflict of interest, a state watchdog determined, because he owns nearby property that would become more valuable if the project were approved. The other was a November decision by the California Supreme Court on another large, sprawling development in the Los Angeles area that left all similar projects statewide uncertain as to how they should measure and disclose their potential greenhouse gas emissions.

Lilac Hills Ranch is currently gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot. If it gathers enough, the Board of Supervisors could choose to adopt it outright or send it to voters in November.

The project would build 1,746 homes in a mostly rural area where current restrictions allow only 110 homes to be built. Accretive says the development would alleviate regional housing costs.

In September, the county’s Planning Commission recommended the Board of Supervisors approve Lilac Hills Ranch.

But the commission also said Accretive should make several changes to the project as a condition of approval. The initiative – the version of the project voters will approve or reject – doesn’t include some of those changes.

The initiative also includes language protecting Accretive from issues that had been raised in the past as potential lawsuits – issues the developer and county planners previously said weren’t issues at all. It also shields the developer from potential lawsuits over the project’s greenhouse gas emissions that arose from November’s Supreme Court decision.

Accretive said the Lilac Hills initiative was drafted to reduce the risk of lawsuits over these issues.

The developer had previously requested the county grant them exceptions to various road standards. For instance, Accretive wouldn’t have to flatten hills, or widen country roads to accommodate the influx of traffic the development would bring. County staff and the Planning Commission said the project shouldn’t get all the exceptions it wanted.

A study of the project’s environmental effects said Lilac Hills Ranch would create an average of 15,000 daily car trips; without the project, all of Valley Center would average 1,300 daily car trips.

Some the Planning Commission’s changes would have required the use of eminent domain to seize private property to widen roads. Accretive executives have consistently said they were against using eminent domain, preferring to get an exemption from complying with road safety standards.

The initiative now specifically says West Lilac Road, one of the roads the Planning Commission said needed to be widened, would be able to stay at the lower road standard.

The Planning Commission also said the developers should construct a new fire station, or improve and expand an existing one so that emergency responders could arrive within five minutes, a countywide requirement.

The initiative stipulates that the project won’t be required to meet the county’s five-minute response standard.

The developers said it included that language to guard it from any lawsuits that might further delay the project. A spokesman also emphasized that residents would still receive sufficient fire services with response times between seven and nine minutes.

Then there’s the one issue on which environmental groups have been prepared to sue all along.

The county’s general plan outlaws so-called “leapfrog development,” or building new communities that are far away from existing homes, jobs and infrastructure. The policy is intended to steer growth toward already-developed areas to preserve the undeveloped ones.

The one exception to the rule is if a leapfrog project meets a special environmental certification.

Lilac Hills Ranch couldn’t meet the specific certification, but Accretive and county planning staff said it met a different standard that they considered a general equivalent.

If the county had approved the project, it was that equivalent standard opponents hoped to seize on in court.

A lawyer for the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, an environmental group, already submitted a letter saying the county’s interpretation of its own general plan would violate state law. Three other lawyers submitted letters opposing the project, laying the foundation to challenge it if it had been approved.

The initiative seeks to protect Accretive from those lawsuits, too.

The initiative would insert a new clause into the county’s general plan that reads: “Leapfrog Development restrictions do not apply to … the Lilac Hills Ranch Specific Plan Village.”

Finally, the November Supreme Court decision against the large sprawl project in Los Angeles threw a wrench in many developers’ projects throughout the state. The acceptable limits for greenhouse gas emissions for new development projects are now unclear.

The ruling also gave project opponents something else they could use to challenge developments.

CNFF drafted a letter that it was ready to send to the Board of Supervisors in December about this issue. The letter made clear that if Lilac Hills Ranch was approved, the organization would sue on the greenhouse gas issue brought into play by the new Supreme Court decision.

But then Accretive decided to go to voters. CNFF didn’t send the letter.

Accretive says it has measured its greenhouse gas emissions through seven different methodologies, concluding its 1,746-home project would produce lower emissions than if the county allowed the 110 homes allowed by existing zoning to be built.

CNFF argues in its letter that none of these seven methodologies would hold up after the court decision.

But if the initiative passes, Accretive won’t have to worry about that.

“It is clear that organizations opposed to new housing projects have focused on these new areas of law surrounding this evolving issue to stop or severely delay new housing developments, regardless of their contributions to [greenhouse gas] reductions,” an Accretive spokesman said in a statement. “[Lilac Hills Ranch] has been threatened by opponents with extended litigation related to this issue. The [Lilac Hills Ranch] initiative reduces our exposure to such litigation.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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