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San Diego County staffers are set to release a report Friday detailing the ways in which the Lilac Hills Ranch initiative that will go before voters in November differs from the controversial sprawl housing project near Valley Center that was nearly approved by the county last year.
Last week, the County Board of Supervisors directed staff to do a 10-day report on the initiative before it decides on Aug. 2 whether to OK the project outright or put it on November’s ballot.
Normally, for a development like Lilac Hills, to get approved, it would go before the County Board of Supervisors, who would vote on whether to let the project be exempted from many elements of the county’s general plan. But Accretive Investments, developer of the 1,700-home project, opted instead to collect signatures and let voters – not the Board of Supervisors – decide the project’s fate after two obstacles arose last year. The first was a state watchdog’s determination that County Supervisor Bill Horn shouldn’t vote on the project due to a conflict of interest from a large swath of developable property he owns nearby. Horn was expected to support the project.
The other was a November state Supreme Court ruling that changed how greenhouse gas emissions for large projects should be measured, threatening the legality of Lilac Hills Ranch’s environmental report.
But going the initiative route means the developers can circumvent those obstacles and also get around other problems the project had encountered during the county’s approval process.
The report will detail just how different the project voters are being asked to approve is from the one the developers had planned to put before the Board of Supervisors.
Here are the major points it’ll clarify.
Indemnification and Liability
Developers tend to sign something called indemnification agreements with the county when they’re trying to get projects approved, ensuring if the project is sued it’s the developer who bears all or some of the cost.
Before last week’s meeting, an opposition group threatened to sue the county over fire and road safety issues if the board approved the project outright, instead of sending it to voters.
Also before last week’s meeting, an Accretive lawyer sent a letter to county counsel, offering to continue to indemnify the county if the supervisors approved the project outright. Accretive spokesman Jeff Powers said the previous indemnification agreement still stands.
The report should clarify the legal liability over the project going forward.
If nothing else, Accretive’s offer shows it made one final push to get the supervisors to approve the project, instead of sending it to voters.
When the project was seeking approval last year, the county Planning Commission recommended the Board of Supervisors approve Lilac Hills Ranch, but it said the county should make Accretive agree to a few changes.
One of those changes related to roads within the project.
The area where Lilac Hills Ranch will be built is filled with narrow, windy roads. Few people live there currently, so it’s not a problem. But according to the project’s environmental report, Lilac Hills Ranch will increase Valley Center’s forecasted population by 22 percent. It’ll generate an additional 15,000 car trips in the area daily.
Normally, the county would require the local roads to be widened and flattened to help deal with the increased traffic and prevent accidents.
But for the developer to upgrade the roads, it would need to take private property through eminent domain – which it doesn’t want to do. So Accretive asked to be exempted from requirements to improve the roads.
The Planning Commission and county staff said the county shouldn’t agree to that. But once Accretive decided to go to the ballot, it wrote the exceptions into its initiative. For example, the initiative explicitly 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 report should identify the places where the initiative differs from the original plan.
In an email, Powers said the plan’s environmental report showed “all planned new roads and improvements to existing roads meet the Fire and County code requirements, and can safely and adequately handle the projected traffic.”
Fire Response Times
The Planning Commission also said the developers should build a new fire station, or improve and expand an existing one so emergency responders could reach the furthest ends of the development within five minutes – a county requirement. It recommended the use of a special tax district to fund and operate the new station.
The project is in an area prone to wildfires.
Only one station, a Calfire station meant to combat wildfires – but not fires in buildings – would be able to reach the development within the county time limits. The Deer Springs Fire District, which would be charged with protecting future Lilac Hills residents, would require a new facility or to potentially share the Calfire station to meet the five-minute mark.
“As documented in the initiative, Lilac Hills Ranch has superior fire protection with three fully staffed fire stations that can respond within 10 minutes,” Power wrote.
The initiative specifies that the project won’t meet the county’s five-minute response standard and includes language that would shield it from lawsuits on the matter.
Accretive said regardless of the five-minute response time, it feels Lilac Hills Ranch will be “one of the safest communities in the entire county” and that the local fire district didn’t support the Planning Commission’s recommendation to levy more taxes on residents to begin with.
Last year at the Planning Commission hearing, Accretive said it would fund and build a school within the development. When the Planning Commission gave the project a thumbs-up, one of its conditions was that Accretive build the school.
The development is within both the Bonsall Unified and Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District boundaries.
The current zoning only allows for 110 new homes, not enough to require a new school. But with more than 1,700 new homes, both districts say they would need a new school to serve the future students. The superintendent of Valley Center-Pauma Unified, Mary Gorsuch, has repeatedly said the developer’s fees normally required to go to schools won’t be close to sufficient to build the needed school.
Unlike road and fire safety issues, the county can’t legally require a developer to build a school. That means the condition that Accretive follow through on its promise to build a school was never legally binding.
The plan identifies land that could be used as a K-8 school site, but the voter initiative doesn’t specifically say the developer will build the school.
It says that land will be available for either district – or a private or charter school – to acquire for a school. If the land isn’t acquired to become a school within a prescribed time period, the land would revert back to residential use.
At last week’s meeting, Gorsuch, who is neutral on the project, expressed concern that there is currently nothing legally binding Accretive to build a school.
Accretive and Bonsall Superintendent Justin Cunningham have a written agreement between the two for the school. But Cunningham – who is strongly in favor of the project – said the agreement is also not legally binding.
Cunningham doesn’t think that matters, though. Not building a school wouldn’t be in Accretive’s best interests.
“The last thing you’d want to do is tell people you’re trying to sell homes to that you backed out of a deal and there’s no school,” he said.