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County Supervisors Vote To Deny Lilac Hills Development

Area in Valley Center where Lilac Hills Ranch project is planned, Aug. 30, 2016.

Photo by Alison St John

Above: Area in Valley Center where Lilac Hills Ranch project is planned, Aug. 30, 2016.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Wednesday to deny a controversial 1,700-home development near Valley Center that voters rejected nearly four years ago.

Village Communities LLC, the developers of Lilac Hills Ranch, wanted board approval for the master-planned community, located east of Interstate 15 and Old Highway 395.

However, the board ratified the county Planning & Services recommendation that the project not go forward.

Mark Wardlaw, Planning and Services director, said his department didn't "present this recommendation lightly." He added staffers spent more than eight years dealing with the applicant over fire safety and related concerns.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, who proposed remanding the application for further review, cast the sole vote in favor of keeping the project alive.

Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Dianne Jacob faulted the proposed development for not meeting fire safety concerns or being consistent with the county's General Plan.

Other issues were the developers not having a firm agreement with the Deer Springs Fire Protection District, and its policy on reducing potential fuel in a wildfire-prone region.

"This is a bad project," Jacob said. "It's in the wrong location."

Jacob said she has never seen county staff deny a project.

"I think it's time the board send a message that any project that blows up our general plans (is) not acceptable," she added. Fletcher said that while the county does have to allow more housing while mitigating climate change, "we're just stuck in a mindset that's dated."

In referring to the project, Fletcher asked, "How many times over how many years are we told that this just isn't gonna work?" Board Chairman Greg Cox said he wasn't sure that remanding the development proposal back to county staff was the answer. "The public has spoken," Cox said. "I find myself not in a position where I can support it."

After the vote, Desmond said that it wasn't "good government to deny a project when the developers are willing to continue working on a solution."

He acknowledged that county Fire Chief Tony Mecham had also opposed the project, because it couldn't be safely evacuated in case of a major fire.

Although she voted with the majority, Supervisor Kristin Gaspar noted that the "housing crisis has impacted every part of the county's economy" and that it hasn't built enough homes to keep up with demand.

She credited Village Communities for making huge strides in its proposal and said that while more work is needed, it wasn't fair "to deny developer a chance to resolve these issues."

Lilac Hills was first proposed in 2005. In 2009, county planners rejected the project, saying it was out of step with the county's plan to concentrate housing development in village areas, rather than maintaining the county's patterns of sprawl.

The developer appealed that determination to the county Planning Commission, and won.

Then in 2015, county planners recommended approving the same project, but it never went for a full vote after former Supervisor Bill Horn recused himself due to financial conflicts of interest from developable land he owns nearby.

The project then went before voters in 2016 and was rejected by a wide margin.

During Wednesday's lengthy public hearing, Village Communities officials told board members that they had made substantial changes on fire safety measures, including evacuation routes, more roads and money to clear fire prone-vegetation.

"We would never ask the board (to) approve a project that doesn't meet fire safety standards," said Jon Rilling of Village Communities.

Speaking in favor of the project, former CalFire Unit Chief Howard Windsor said Lilac Hills "is a state-of-the-art and fire-safe community." Windsor added he met with staff to make sure Lilac Hills exceeds county standards.

Supervisors also heard from over 30 people, many of them area residents, on the project.

Those in favor said Lilac Hills was needed for more affordable housing, while opponents also cited fire safety issues and how the project would negatively impact the community's rural feel.

Several people also mentioned the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in California's Butte County as an example of what could happen with the wrong type of development. That fire killed more than 80 people.

Tommy Hough, vice president for policy for San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, said the county "should resist the temptation to throw open our wildlands to sprawl developers. It's not a future we should embrace."

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