Both candidates running for county supervisor agree on one thing when it comes to Lilac Hills Ranch: They wish it never went to the ballot in the first place.

Neither Democratic County Supervisor Dave Roberts nor his Republican opponent, Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar, is taking a position on Measure B, the plan to build a sprawling 1,700-home development near Valley Center.

Whichever one wins the race to represent the coastal North County district could be forced to take votes related to the project once in office, so they’re following advice from the county’s lawyers not to take a position one way or the other.

During a July meeting that put the initiative on the ballot, Roberts sympathized with the developer’s decision to pursue voter approval after a series of unforeseen circumstances forced its hand.

Nonetheless, he said, he had concerns that the project on the ballot differed from the one that was going through the county’s normal approval process – namely, fire response times that didn’t meet county standards and road improvements the developer is no longer required to make.

“I do have some significant concerns with the projects and it’s not my intention to interfere with the applicant’s right to request a public vote on the project,” Roberts said. “But I do believe that one of the primary reasons I was elected to the Board of Supervisors is to protect our residents’ safety and our overall quality of life.”

Gaspar said projects like Lilac Hills, which build in undeveloped areas with no transit options and existing infrastructure, aren’t ideal, but that the county’s development process needs fixing right now.

“Development where development already exists is always the easiest,” she said. “We have an increasing need in housing stock for the county as the county continues to grow … is going to be an ongoing challenge. Lilac Hills will come and go, and then there will be other projects behind it.”

As the project was going through the traditional approval process before the Board of Supervisors last year, a state watchdog said Supervisor Bill Horn shouldn’t vote on the project since the project could potentially make property he owns nearby more valuable, making it harder for the developer to get enough votes for approval. A state Supreme Court ruling also that made it unclear how sprawling developments should measure their greenhouse gas increases. Those two obstacles made the Lilac Hills Ranch developers turn to the ballot.

Gaspar said she’d prefer if projects would follow the normal development process, but she understands why developers are starting to take this route.

“The challenge is that in terms of timeline, all projects are taking an incredible amount of time to work through the traditional channels and when they do, nine times out of 10, they’re litigated in court,” she said.

She said elected officials need to meet with residents and developers when a project is first proposed, to hash out compromises and get things moving.

If Gaspar is elected, she said she’d work with developers and residents to figure out policy changes that could make the process more efficient.

Roberts, though, said in an email that the county’s long-term blueprint for future growth – adopted just five years ago – allows for plenty of new development, and he considers it one of his “primary responsibilities to uphold our general plan.”

To him, the county’s current process wasn’t the problem for Lilac Hills.

“There are numerous examples of successful projects that comply with the principles and vision of our General Plan, and that are compatible with their surrounding communities,” Roberts said.

The county can address its housing shortage while following the general plan, he said.

Lilac Hills isn’t alone. A number of similar projects are likewise seeking amendments to the general plan, and are expecting a vote in the coming years. They would add thousands of new homes to this mainly undeveloped area in the northeastern part of the county.

None, including Lilac Hills Ranch, is in District 3, but Roberts said he’s heard a lot of concerns from his constituents.

Specifically, he said they’ve asked him about how the development affects fire response times, the county’s greenhouse gas emissions, road safety and added traffic and whether it sets a precedent for more plans to go to voters to bypass environmental review.

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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