The proposed site of Lilac Hills Ranch / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Lilac Hills Ranch is back – again.

The proposed 1,700-home development near Valley Center has been in the works for about 15 years. The project’s developer had originally sought approval from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, but opted instead to have voters weigh in. Voters rejected the project in 2016.

Now, a revised version of the project will come before the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.

Fire safety and a lack of sufficient evacuation routes have long dogged Lilac Hills Ranch and other proposed projects that lie along the wildland-urban interface, the invisible line where human development meets flammable vegetation – where the most destruction from wildfires occurs.

In the past, those issues weren’t enough to kill Lilac Hills. That may no longer be the case.

Some of the worst wildfires in California history have happened within the last five years, including 2018’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 11,000 homes in Paradise, Calif. The Lilac Fire in San Diego in 2017 destroyed more than 180 structures, roughly half of which were homes. Nearly 7,500 residents had to be evacuated.

Those fires prompted new requirements for developers, especially in severe wildfire risk areas. And meeting all the new requirements to ensure Lilac Hills and its future residents are safe from wildfires has become the central problem with the project.

The developer has made several modifications to its plan, but one sole issue – obtaining easements to manage flammable vegetation and ensure safe evacuation routes – remains in flux, and county planners are recommending that the project be rejected as a result. The easements would effectively be a legal agreement that would allow the developer to ensure that flammable brush on private property near Lilac Hills Ranch was managed safely.

Back in 2009, county planners denied the project, saying it “would locate new development outside the Valley Center village area within a rural, agricultural area without existing infrastructure, services and jobs.” The developer – Accretive Investments at the time, now called Village Communities LLC – appealed to the Planning Commission, which overruled the decision and allowed the project to move forward.

In 2015, county planners recommended the project be approved, as did the County Planning Commission. But separate political issues, including the recusal of former Supervisor Bill Horn and a court decision about greenhouse gas emissions reporting made the project’s developers wary that it would win the support of a majority of county supervisors, so it tried an expensive alternate route: It gathered signatures to place the measure on the ballot in 2016, where voters resoundingly rejected it.

Now the project is back before the county officials.

Developers, county staff and representatives of a local fire district spent years haggling over how to ensure Lilac Hills residents would be protected in case of an emergency. Deer Springs Fire District officials raised a red flag on Lilac Hills early on. Emergency responders wouldn’t be able to reach all its residents within five minutes, a countywide requirement, according to a 2014 letter from the Deer Springs Fire Board.

The area where the development would be built is highly prone to wildfires.

Developers and county officials looked into numerous solutions over the years – some were unacceptable to the fire district, others to Accretive. In 2015 when county planners recommended that the project be approved, they simply decided Accretive could put off the decision, as long as it figured out a solution before it could begin later phases of construction.

The fire district needed a new station for the area, but couldn’t afford to pay for it on its own. Lilac Hills Ranch wouldn’t generate enough tax revenue to operate the station until the whole development is finished – 10 years down the road.

The developers came up with a novel approach: If fire officials weren’t receptive to the project, they’d help elect others who might be more open to it. They poured tens of thousands of dollars into the obscure Deer Springs Fire Board race through a political action committee. All three of the candidates that received PAC spending were elected. In that one fire board race, the committee spent $58,800, which was more than four times the amount as the other 54 candidates in all fire board elections in San Diego County raised that year, according to campaign disclosures.

At the time, fire issues didn’t prevent county planners nor the Planning Commission from recommending that the project be approved.

In 2017, the project came back before the county, with some revisions, including a new greenhouse gas analysis.

But county planners are now recommending that the Board of Supervisors deny the project, citing fire safety and evacuation issues – which have dogged numerous big developments in northeastern San Diego County.

During the 2014 Cocos Fire – which destroyed roughly 65 buildings and incurred an estimated $29.8 million in property damage – traffic gridlocked on Country Club Drive as residents tried to evacuate, according to some accounts. The fire created the same problem for another nearby development, San Elijo Hills, near San Marcos. San Elijo Road led to all three exits out of the development and became gridlocked as thousands of residents fled.

The county’s Wednesday presentation to the board highlights how 2016, 2017 and 2018 saw some of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history, which cause a new focus on fuel modification and evacuation planning with proposed developments. Fuel modification in this context means that flammable vegetation will be thinned and managed in such a way that it will disrupt a fire’s spread.

In late 2016, the County Fire Authority began providing fire protection services on Deer Springs Fire Protection District’s behalf. The County Fire Authority subsequently reviewed the project and found several concerns.

Most critically, the county identified that one of the project’s two routes, West Lilac Road, presents an entrapment risk in the event people need to evacuate for a wildfire. The project would add an estimated 5,000 people to the area and, according to the presentation, at least half of those residents would likely have to evacuate through West Lilac Road, possibly more, depending on where a fire occurs.

Staff concluded a 20-foot zone of fuel modification, or flammable vegetation management, would need to be added to the road, to slow the rate of wildfire spread. To do this, the developer would need easements from private property along West Lilac Road that would legally allow the developer to ensure that flammable brush and vegetation on that private property near the development was properly managed.

“Without the easements along West Lilac Road, the entrapment risk remains unaddressed,” read the planning staff report. “Staff has therefore determined the Project is unsafe and recommends denial of the Project.”

On June 12, the Planning Commission didn’t go so far as to recommend denying the project over the issue, but added a requirement that the developer would fund the fuel modification along West Lilac Road through HOA fees.

The developer did not respond to a request from Voice of San Diego for comment on the issue, but addresses it in its presentation for the board, which was posted online earlier this month.

“We are here today because one issue remains, and that issue is not whether Lilac Hills Ranch is a fire safe community,” said Jon Rilling of Village Communities LLC. “The issue is how to implement the last fire safety requirement.”

Rilling is referring to how vegetation management would happen on West Lilac Road. Rilling said the easements are not necessary for the fuel modification zone, or the management of combustible vegetation.

If the Board of Supervisors doesn’t deny the project outright, it can either refer the project back to staff for further analysis and allow the developer additional time to resolve the fire issues or direct staff “to prepare the necessary documents to approve the existing proposed Project and bring it back to the Board for consideration.”

Either of those options would require a recirculation of the project’s Environmental Impact Report, which would take approximately one and a half years and, according to the staff report, cost the developer an additional $150,000 to $250,000.

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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