The County Board of Supervisors will decide the next step for Lilac Hills Ranch, a sprawling project that would build 1,700 new homes near rural Valley Center, on Tuesday.

Supervisors could ask voters to make a final decision after Accretive Investments, the project’s developer, collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. They could also ask county staff to prepare a new study of the project’s environmental, economic and public safety effects.

Or they could approve the project outright.

If the Board of Supervisors bypasses a public vote and approves the project, neighbors say they’ll sue the county for waiving safety standards for a private development project.

That’s because of two shortcuts Accretive took when it started collecting signatures to put the project on the ballot. Those shortcuts dealt with long-standing issues that the developer couldn’t fix.

The initiative specifically exempts the project from county road and fire safety standards.

One of those standards stipulates that in the event of a fire, emergency responders should be able to reach the development in at least five minutes. Developers could never figure out how to make that possible, so the initiative gives voters the chance to decide they don’t have to.

In March, the developers said it included that language to guard against any lawsuits that might further delay the project. A spokesman also emphasized to Voice of San Diego at the time that residents would still receive sufficient fire services with response times between seven and nine minutes.

The project is one of several proposed in areas highly prone to wildfires.

Nor could Accretive figure out how to comply with standards that require roads to be a certain width or less hilly as more people  drive on them, in order to prevent accidents and ease traffic. Widening some of the required roads would have meant exercising the government’s eminent domain authority to take neighboring land – which developers repeatedly said they didn’t want to do.

When it was still in the regular planning process, Accretive requested exceptions to various road standards. For instance, Accretive wanted to avoid having to flatten hills, or widening any narrow, 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.

So the initiative stipulates that Accretive doesn’t need to worry about those standards, either.

“I’d be really surprised if county counsel allowed that vote to take place,” said Mark Jackson, one of the residents who’s threatened a lawsuit and part of a group opposed to the project, Save Our Countryside. “Yes, it’s exempt from [the California Environmental Quality Act]. That just requires that you disclose the impacts. Civil liability is a whole different set of issues – it would mean the county voted and knowingly had a hand in safety issues.”

The county counsel’s office said it wasn’t able to comment on any potential public liability lawsuits related to the project or the initiative.

Last week, the county registrar determined Accretive collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Now the board can greenlight that process, or approve the project outright.

The developer opted to collect signatures after two issues arose last year. One was a state watchdog’s determination that County Supervisor Bill Horn shouldn’t vote on the project due to a conflict of interest presented by a large swath of developable property he owns nearby. Horn was expected to support the project.

The other was a state Supreme Court ruling in November that changed how the greenhouse gas emissions of large projects in the state should be measured, and threatened the legality of its environmental report.

In that case, the state Supreme Court determined that citizen-led initiatives for developments that gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot were shielded from lawsuits under California’s premier environmental law, even if a city council or board of supervisors approved the initiative outright without sending it to voters. It’s unclear, though, whether the ruling would shield a project – and the government body that approves it – from other types of lawsuits.

Another group that opposes the Lilac Hills project, the Endangered Habitats League, sent out an email to supporters Friday just after the project was added to Tuesday’s agenda, asking supporters to press supervisors to require a new report on the project before deciding what to do next.

“This is an important step in eventually defeating the ballot measure,” read the e-mail.

Approving the project outright would be the cheapest option for Accretive, which has already spent a decade and a lot of money trying to make it through the county’s permitting process before turning to expensive signature gathering to make it on the ballot. They’d also need to fund a campaign if to win over voters if the plan goes to the ballot.

County staff and the planning commission blessed the project last year while it was making its way through the traditional permitting process. But they said the developer needed to solve some major issues with the project – many of which Accretive exempted itself from in its initiative.

Letting the voters decide on Lilac Hills Ranch would ultimately offer both the county and the developers the most legal security. If voters countywide approve the project, which has been marketing itself as the answer to San Diego’s housing affordability woes, it will be extremely difficult for opponents to block it.

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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