The developers behind Lilac Hills Ranch stood before the County Board of Supervisors last month with an unusual demand.

Accretive Investments has been trying to win approval for the sprawling, 1,700-home project near Valley Center for a decade. Now it’ll go before San Diego County voters as Measure B in November.

But the developers last month told the supervisors the official analysis of the ballot initiative prepared by county staff was filled with factual errors.

“We really, really appeal to you to correct the impact report,” said Accretive CEO Randy Goodson. “It is absolutely false and misleading. … We think the way it’s drafted, if it’s left alone, is very misleading.”

His issue was with a staff report’s conclusion that the project going before voters was in fact different than the one that the county’s Planning Commission had endorsed a year earlier.

It was the latest example of the developer’s decade-long refusal to take “no” for an answer on Lilac Hills Ranch.

In 2009, for instance, the county planning department tried to reject the project outright, saying it wasn’t consistent with the county’s guiding plans for new development because it would put so many homes far from existing jobs and infrastructure.

Accretive appealed that decision to the Planning Commission, keeping the project alive.

This time the project made it further. The project needed special approval from the County Board of Supervisors because it proposed building more than 1,746 homes in an area where only 110 were allowed.

Late last year, the developer had to change its game plan when two unforeseen obstacles popped up.

The first 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.

The second was a state watchdog’s determination that County Supervisor Bill Horn shouldn’t vote on the project due to a conflict of interest. Horn was expected to support the project.

Going to the ballot was the developer’s way around those roadblocks.

Before the developer went to the ballot, the Planning Commission, which provides a recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors, had narrowly recommended the project with a handful of conditions.

It told the developer to build a new fire station – or provide funds to expand an existing one – so the development could meet county fire response times. Fire response and EMS need to reach homes in five minutes, but it’s estimated it would take seven to nine minutes for responders to get to the furthest reaches of Lilac Hills Ranch.

Another condition was that the developer build a new elementary school to accommodate children who moved in.

The Planning Commission also required the developer to make improvements to certain roads. The project is estimated to generate more than 15,000 daily car trips; without it the same area would see only about 1,300. Some of these road improvements would have required eminent domain – which the  developer opposed from the start.

But when Lilac Hills Ranch wrote its initiative that became Measure B, those conditions weren’t included. The initiative did include lots of language shielding it from lawsuits.

For example, the initiative stipulates the project won’t be required to meet the county’s five-minute fire response standard. It specifically says Lilac Hills Ranch would have different fire response requirements from all other developments in the unincorporated areas of the county.

It also included language exempting it from county planning standards that prohibit so-called leapfrog developments – new development that isn’t connected to existing development. The standard exists to prevent suburban sprawl that harms the environment, and several groups were poised to sue over it had Lilac Hills Ranch been approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Once Accretive had enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, the Board of Supervisors asked staff to produce a report comparing the initiative to the project that had been recommended by the Planning Commission a year earlier.

In the following 10 days, as the staff was producing the report, Accretive gave a document to the county to influence the study.

“In summary, the Initiative is fundamentally the same as the Project … ” Accretive’s document concluded.

Accretive did not respond to questions about the document.

County staff found that the Planning Commission’s conditions and others, such as the phasing that provided for infrastructure improvements to be made as housing was built, were indeed left out of the initiative.

That’s what Accretive took issue with last month.

“These statements are absolutely false and damaging and must, therefore be corrected,” said Accretive President Jon Rilling during the Aug. 2 meeting, where the supervisors placed the measure on the ballot.

Staff defended their report, and the supervisors didn’t require them to make any of the corrections.

When it came to building a new school, Accretive and Bonsall Unified School District said they had come to an agreement, presenting a letter wherein the developer promised to do so.

At the meeting, however, Supervisor Ron Roberts was unsure the letter settled things. He said the county shouldn’t leave “a question on the table of whether there will be a school or not.” Staff couldn’t allay his concerns and told him there is nothing in the initiative guaranteeing a school and that they weren’t privy to any enforceable side agreement between the developer and the school district.

“I feel like we’re casting a fog over something,” Roberts said. “People want to know if there will be a school.”

“The voters’ decision would be silent to the decision as to whether there would be a school,” said county legal counsel Thomas Montgomery.

After the meeting, Accretive entered into a new agreement with the school district. During a special meeting on Aug. 22, the school board voted on a new, detailed, legally binding agreement with the developer.

On fire safety, Accretive says it meets local fire district standards, so it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t meet the county’s rules.

“Measure B does nothing to exempt the project from fire safety measures; rather, the measure goes the extra mile to make the development one of the safest, if not the safest in the county when it comes to fire protection,” said Accretive in a statement. “The opponents attempt to mislead voters into believing Lilac Hills Ranch will not be safe unless a new fire station is built.”

When it comes to certain roads, Accretive’s initiative left it to the county to make safety improvements. One of the roads in the development would intersect with a public road, and would leave the county in a legally vulnerable position.

In an e-mail, the developer said it was paying more than $16 million to deal with road and traffic issues, but did not address the specific roads at issue. County staff has said the fees the developer is referring to can’t legally be used on those specific road improvements, since they are meant to deal with roads that are entirely public, as well as the cumulative impacts of development.

The county would be liable for the safety conditions in this case. If it wants to widen the roads to make them safer for more traffic, it would have to use eminent domain and taxpayer money. If it chooses not to, the county could be sued.

After the meeting, the developers attempted to clean this up, too.

Accretive submitted a letter to the Board of Supervisors offering an additional $2 million to deal with any additional road and safety issues that its development fees wouldn’t cover.

The county said two things about the letter: that it wasn’t clear whether it was legally enforceable nor was it certain that $2 million would be enough.

Accretive did not respond to questions about the enforceability of its letter or the amount of money offered.

In weighing in on Measure B, voters are not just rendering a decision on Lilac Hills Ranch. They may also be setting two major precedents about development in the county. The first is a burgeoning trend of developers going to the ballot to bypass planning processes by local governments and local regulations.

Lilac Hills Ranch is also the first of several projects being proposed in the northeastern part of the county, where there hasn’t been a lot of development and where the county hasn’t planned for development.

Before voting to put the measure on the ballot, Supervisor Dianne Jacob expressed concerns about the way Lilac Hills Ranch was moving forward.

“I have deep concerns about ballot-box planning,” Jacob said. “I don’t think it’s a responsible way to shape development in our communities. … Is this a classic example of leapfrog development that could set a precedent for future leapfrog developments?”

Maya Srikrishnan

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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