Lilac Hills Project: 'Leapfrog' Development Or Smart Growth?
Proposed Valley Center housing project requires changes to county general plan
Mark and Karen Jackson bought their retirement home in Valley Center five years ago. They enjoy sitting on their back patio listening to the birds sing, surrounded by rolling hills, scattered homes and orchards.
Now they and some of their North County neighbors fear their rural lifestyle will be disrupted by the Lilac Hills Ranch project, a housing development proposed by Accretive Investments Inc. It would include more than 1,700 homes on 608 acres between West Lilac Road and Rodriguez Road.
The housing project would "be on the lemon grove, out about 300 feet from where we are now,“ Mark Jackson said, gesturing toward the hill behind his house.
"That’s where the start of really high-density urban development will be,” he said.
Accretive wants the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to amend its general plan — a guiding document for development in unincorporated areas of the county — to allow some 1,700 homes in an area zoned for a little more than 100.
Jackson calls the Lilac Hills Ranch project an example of "leapfrog" development — housing that springs up where no existing cities or job centers are. Jackson said the project would be about the size of the city of Del Mar, which has a population of about 4,300.
Mark Jackson’s neighbor, Steve Hutchison, keeps a few cattle on his spread nearby.
“The project extends from the west all the way to the east behind me — 608 acres,” Hutchison said, sweeping his arm from horizon to horizon to show where the homes would be built.
Hutchison has served for years on the Valley Center Planning Group and was part of the 13-year process to update the county’s general plan for future growth in unincorporated areas. San Diego County spent millions of dollars updating the plan, he said, and it was finalized four years ago.
The county's homepage for the general plan says it “is based on a set of guiding principles designed to protect the county’s unique and diverse natural resources and maintain the character of its rural and semi-rural communities. It reflects an environmentally sustainable approach to planning.”
The general plan puts future development close to existing roads and infrastructure to cut down on commutes and help the county meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gases. The plan specifically prohibits leapfrog development.
“If you can have an exception to that leapfrog development prohibition, you can have a project like we’re talking about virtually everywhere in the undeveloped county,” Hutchison said. “Anywhere.”
Developer touts project's 'small-town' values
Accretive Investments has been working on the master-planned community for years, gradually buying up parcels of land. KPBS asked the developer for an interview, but the request was declined.
On the company's website, the words it uses to describe Lilac Hills Ranch seem aimed at countering claims it is a leapfrog development. Here's what the website says:
"A neighborhood grounded in traditional small-town values embracing 21st Century design and sustainability. Lilac Hills Ranch is conveniently located to intersect with major transportation corridors and other existing infrastructure. It will showcase new design and technology, making it the perfect place to grow smart and live green."
The website says the project will include "90,000 square feet of commercial, office, and retail, including a 50-room country inn; 903 traditional single-family detached homes; 164 single-family attached homes; 211 residential units within the commercial mixed-use areas; and 468 single-family detached age-restricted residential units within a senior citizens neighborhood.”
Accretive has held meetings with the community and says the proposed development is sustainable. It includes solar energy, recycled water, on-site composting and green buildings, plus walking and biking trails.
Matt Adams, vice president of the San Diego Building Industry Association, said the county supervisors have good reasons to amend the general plan to allow a development like Lilac Hills.
“We have a housing shortage in San Diego County," Adams said. “Homes cost as much as they do now because we don’t build enough of them, and we haven’t for years. SANDAG says we should be building 1,000 homes a month just to keep pace with population growth, and we haven’t done that in 10 years. So we have to start making decisions about where we want to house our citizens, both our current citizens and future citizens.”
SANDAG planning for future growth
By the year 2050, it’s projected another 1 million people will live in San Diego County.
The San Diego Association of Governments, the area's regional planning agency, released last month a draft of its new regional growth plan — San Diego Forward — that calls for “more compact development near transit, and toward greater open space preservation.”
Building near existing transit is a key principle. SANDAG and the county are being sued for failing to meet statewide goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A SANDAG senior planner submitted a comment on the environmental impact report for the Lilac Hills project saying that the county has not identified this area as an opportunity for smart growth.
But Charles “Muggs” Stoll, SANDAG’s director of land use and transportation planning, said the regional planning agency has no authority over the county’s land use decisions.
“What we try to do is, we try to encourage land use development that focuses development in already developed areas, because that’s what we see happening,” Stoll said. "So we try to do things to advocate for that and to encourage that, but we are not a land use authority. That’s not our role.”
SANDAG is responsible for designing transportation systems.
Adams with the building industry group notes that Lilac Hills Ranch would be close to Interstate 15 in North County. He said forcing people to drive even further to find affordable housing won’t help cut the region’s greenhouse gas emissions.
”If we don’t build these units, you’re going to see more people in their cars driving up to Temecula to find affordable housing,” Adams said. "And that clearly is at odds with smart growth.”
The proposed site is is less than a mile from I-15 as the crow flies, but more than two miles along existing two-lane roads.
Hutchison said those roads won’t be able to handle 5,000 more residents driving to the nearest job centers in Escondido or San Marcos.
The community is ready to accept its share of new housing, he said, and the general plan has plenty of space for new developments near Valley Center’s existing town center.
“It accounts for all of the growth, in fact more of the growth than the state is asking us to accommodate between now and 2050,” Hutchison said.
He said developers don’t build where the general plan says they can build, because land is cheaper in undeveloped areas.
“If you look at land like is behind me, it sells for much less, maybe $20,000, $30,000 an acre,” he said. “If you get into the community centers, it’s going to be higher density and consequently more expensive. And it could be over $250,000, maybe up to $500,000 an acre."
The Lilac Hills development proposal is expected to come before the Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors later this summer.