By JP Theberge with Tommy Hough
As we get closer to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors hearing on Lilac Hills Ranch on Wednesday, June 24, I wanted to share a few thoughts, including details on the recent approval given to Lilac Hills by the San Diego County Planning Commission on June 12, in spite of the county fire chief and county staff recommending against it.
The Lilac Hills project is quintessential sprawl: a housing subdivision in a remote, rural area of the county near Valley Center, accessible via narrow, winding roads surrounded by highly flammable habitat that has burned repeatedly over the years.
You may recall Lilac Hills was previously presented as Measure B on the countywide ballot in 2016. San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action were a key component of the coalition that opposed Measure B four years ago. At the time, the developer chose to bypass the Board of Supervisors to take the project straight to the voters, but county voters soundly rejected it on Election Day by a two-to-one margin with 730,000 votes against the development.
This time around, the developer is hoping to get a simple majority on the Board of Supervisors to approve it, despite county staff and even Chief Tony Mecham, the director of the San Diego County Fire Authority, recommending that supervisors deny approval of Lilac Hills. The gravity of this is unprecedented, as the county fire authority has typically been notorious for rubber-stamping similar projects.
Similarly, the main objection of county staff is the project is inherently unsafe due to wildfire concerns, compounded by an inability to secure easements for vegetation management along the main egress on West Lilac Rd. While the developer is offering $2 million for "brush abatement," the expectation is the Lilac Hills HOA, or other management entity, would manage the actual clearance on West Lilac Rd. in perpetuity, even though there's no legally-binding mechanism requiring it. In addition, the exisiting road is simply not designed, and was never intended, to evacuate a community the size of Lilac Hills safely and quickly during a wildfire.
So why did county staff suddenly reverse themselves after years of saying Lilac Hills was safe? One reason is that since 2016, wildfires in Northern California, including massive conflagrations in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) in 2017 and Paradise (Butte County) in 2018, have put renewed focus on evacuation infrastructure. Two lawsuits filed against San Diego County by the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council also prevailed for the plaintiffs, due to unsafe conditions and faulty analysis of evacuations.
In fact, the county conducted its own studies on Lilac Hills fire safety, independent of the developers' fire consultants, and found the project would, indeed, create a fire entrapment risk.
So let's pause for a moment. At this stage, a county commissioner voting in favor of the Lilac Hills project would essentially be saying, "There is no amount of danger to the public bad enough for me to vote against development in the backcountry."
June 12th Planning Commission Meeting
Nevertheless, planning commissioners steamrolled county staff earlier this month by forcing a motion counter to two alternate options presented by staff. According to the motion proposed by Commission Chair Douglas Barnhart (representing Jim Desmond), "Recommend board not deny project based on fire safety issue. Board director should propose that applicant's project be conditioned to ensure funding for vegetation funding in perpetuity without the need for easements."
The motion passed 5 to 2, with commissioners Yolanda Calvo (Fletcher) and Michael Beck (Jacob) opposed. As per usual, Commissioner Michael Seiler (Cox) seemed as if he was going to vote against it, only to vote for the motion when Vice Chair Bryan Woods (Jacob) and Barnhart added the motion to recommend a condition of approval, i.e. the ongoing "brush abatement" funding.
This may not be a particularly difficult obstacle to overcome before the full Board of Supervisors, especially since other wildfire issues not addressed by the planning commission appear to be far bigger and of far greater concern, like the overall lack of evacuation routes. It's likely the pro-sprawl supervisors will not see this condition of approval as particularly problematic. Desmond, Gaspar, and Cox will vote for approval of the Lilac Hills development unless significant pressure is put on them to do otherwise.
Jim Desmond's Valley Center Pledge
During the D-5 supervisor race in 2018, then-candidate Jim Desmond stated he would not support Lilac Hills if it didn't have adequate emergency infrastructure. At the D-5 candidates forum in Valley Center on May 4, 2018, Desmond said "Unless it has the infrastructure that's necessary for their emergency access, ingress and egress and it provides that for the rest of VC. I would not support it. Unless it comes with that infrastructure and brings you that extra benefit of emergency access. If it is adequate and the fire department signs off on it, then I would approve it."
It will be politically problematic for Jim Desmond, with plenty of bad optics, to approve Lilac Hills when the fire chief says it's not safe, especially after he explicitly stated he would not do so if county fire was not in approval. Desmond would do we to remember that 80 percent of the voters in his district (D-5) voted against Lilac Hills in 2016 – Republicans and Democrats.
So while it may seem out of the purview of a partisan Democratic club, one action item you may want to consider is to convince Republican or right-leaning friends, family, or colleagues in D-5 to write comment letters calling on Supervisor Desmond to "keep his word" on Lilac Hills. In fact, this might be the ONLY thing that forces Jim Desmond to vote against it.
This is also problematic for Supervisor Kristen Gaspar, even though Lilac Hills isn't in her district. Voting against fire safety can and will come back to haunt her in the all-important D-3 race against Terra Lawson-Remer this fall. But despite the electoral risk, there is absolutely no reason to expect Gaspar will do anything but vote to approve Lilac Hills. She has always voted in developers' interest, even against county staff recommendations, and received close to one million dollars' worth of support via industry-related PACs during the 2016 election. This is one moment when they will expect to collect.
What Can You Do? Take ACTION Today!
Submit a comment via the county's e-comment system by 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, June 24. You'll want to support the agenda item, because the agenda item is to DENY the project. Support staff's recommendation to deny.
You can also send a longer letter to the Board of Supervisors via e-mail, but you'll want to do so by Sunday night in order for it to be considered:
Please be sure to "attend" the San Diego County Board of Supervisors hearing virtually this Wednesday, June 24, and call in a comment (maximum of three minutes). Instructions do so are here.
Make sure you register by 8:30 a.m. the morning of June 24 or you won't be able to comment. Remember: We want to support the agenda item because the agenda item is to DENY the project. Support staff's recommendation to deny.
You can also tag your supervisor on social media via Twitter:
And via Facebook:
JP Theberge runs a public opinion and market research firm and serves as the director of Grow the San Diego Way, providing data and analysis on housing issues in San Diego County. JP also serves on the board of San Diegans for Managed Growth. He lives in Elfin Forest.
Banner photo by Tommy Hough
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