Damon Lane County Park, two miles east of the Mount Helix summit, serves more than local residents’ needs for a peaceful commune with nature. “The park was put there,” says Jack Phillips, chair of the local planning group for the incorporated area and a community leader for 25 years, “as a buffer between two types of density.” On the park’s south and east sides, Rancho San Diego along Jamacha Road is a crowded mixture of residential and business uses, while the region north and west of the park has retained its rural roots.
But according to the Valle de Oro Community Planning Group, a new development in the works north of the park would be the first step in destroying the community’s character. Fuerte Ranch Estates is the venture of Reynolds Communities, an El Cajon development company that has already completed several smaller projects in the area. The company wants to build 36 homes on a 27-acre parcel, the site of a former chicken ranch, at the southeast corner of Fuerte Drive and Damon Lane. The development would have an entrance on each street. The land is currently zoned for agricultural use, with a maximum of one dwelling unit allowed per two acres. To complicate matters, Fuerte Elementary School occupies the southwest corner of the intersection.
Final passage of Fuerte Ranch Estates would require a general plan amendment. “There is no benefit for the community,” Phillips tells me by phone. “The project has no reason except to help the developer buy a new yacht. And it is not normal for county planners to throw out the current general plan only for one developer.”
Let’s go south on Damon Lane, down the hill along the old chicken ranch, whose dilapidated sheds still stand, to the northwest entrance of Damon Lane County Park. My guide is Laura Dvorak, a resident of Rancho San Diego. We look at an aging chain-link fence separating the ranch from the park. Dvorak tells me a concrete-block fire wall would replace the fence if the new development goes in. The slope downhill from the sheds is bowed, leaving much of the ground sunken in a trough that collects water in rainy seasons. That water drains southward, as does a subterranean stream that emerges above ground in the middle of the park, eventually flowing into the Sweetwater River. Dvorak believes that any large-scale construction on the ranch would severely pollute the creek.
The developer plans to bring in fill dirt to create a “pad” on the ranch’s low spot. That would raise the level of the project’s houses so they would never flood. According to Dvorak, some residents on the west side of Damon Lane have complained they’d lose their view if the houses are built so high.
Dvorak loves Damon Lane County Park, and it’s easy to see why. Its wide trails run along open meadows and riparian woodlands, with abundant cottonwood trees. The park lies within a county Multiple Species Conservation Program subarea. Dvorak is able to name more than 60 animals she’s seen in the park, from swallowtail butterflies, ring-necked snakes, western diamondbacks, horned lizards, raccoons, and big brown bats to quail, blue herons, great horned owls, and American kestrels. She seems partial to raptors, which perch on high places around the whole area. From our vantage point, we can see a red-tailed hawk atop a telephone pole next to the chicken ranch’s main house. “He sits on top of that pole every day,” Dvorak tells me. “Once they start construction up there, he’ll disappear forever.” An early environmental document prepared for Fuerte Ranch Estates paid significant attention to potential damage to wildlife in the park. “But the wildlife issues have dropped out of the discussion lately,” says Dvorak.
By phone, I speak with Susan Brownlee, a member of the Valle de Oro Community Planning Group. I ask what happened to the discussion of the Fuerte Ranch project’s potential effects on wildlife. Brownlee tells me that Reynolds Communities convinced the County’s Department of Planning and Land Use that an environmental impact report was not necessary, that there wouldn’t be any significant impacts on wildlife. “The developer made the case in what’s called a ‘negative declaration.’ In that document, they did have to do some biology.”
To Brownlee, the one thing that most demands an environmental impact report is the traffic 36 new homes would foist onto Fuerte Elementary School’s quiet life across the street. When Brownlee’s children attended the school less than a decade ago, she served two terms as president of its Parent Teacher Association. “Fuerte Drive is a winding road and already crowded and dangerous,” she says. “There was a death down the street to the west about a year and a half ago. Those fifth-graders doing crossing-guard duty at the school have a tough job trying to control all the cars dropping students off and picking them up every day. Now add 12 trips per day per new home. In the developer’s traffic study, 432 new trips per day is not significant, but to me it is.
“Our planning board’s desire is to keep land parcels to one acre, and more if they’re on steep slopes,” says Brownlee. “That’s what happened in another subdivision a little to the north and east. At Fuerte Ranch Estates, you could probably build about 13 homes, given that some of the land has to be used for access streets and other things.
“I disagree with the county planners’ approach to general plan amendments. Those should be very difficult to come by and only be granted when there are extenuating circumstances. Homeowners should be able to rely on a general plan to afford them protection from unforeseen violations of the community character. And why do the planners want us to develop like Los Angeles anyway? One of the great things about San Diego is that there are some places with high density, where it’s appropriate, and others where things are more spread out.”
What would a completed Fuerte Ranch Estates portend? Planning group chair Jack Phillips worries that the development is “likely to transform the whole area. Currently there is no sewer in the chicken ranch’s vicinity; all the houses are on septic. The developer tells us septic won’t be possible in Fuerte Ranch Estates, even though five houses on the property now have it. So this cookie-cutter subdivision has to annex a sewer district.”
According to Phillips, the current general plan forbids the Spring Valley Sanitation District from putting sewer lines north of Rancho San Diego. To get around the restriction, Reynolds Communities solicited the Otay Water District to install pipes connecting Fuerte Ranch Estates to Rancho San Diego.
“I talked with the Otay Water District,” says Phillips, “and they don’t put in lines smaller than eight inches in diameter. That’s big enough to handle 100 units. The presence of the sewer will encourage people nearby to subdivide their properties and sell lots.”
In the Reynolds Communities plan, the sewer line would run south, the same direction as the current drainage flow. Contractors would dig a ditch into Damon Lane County Park and then across to where a residential street called Calle Albara dead-ends near the park’s northeast corner. There the line would connect with Rancho San Diego’s sewer system.
Phillips tells me the Valle de Oro planning group and the Grossmont–Mt. Helix Improvement Association have not wavered in their opposition to Fuerte Ranch Estates since the project was first broached seven years ago. Reynolds Communities then wanted 72 units in the subdivision. By the time it arrived for the first time at the County’s Planning Commission, Reynolds had dropped the number of housing units to 40. In early 2009, the commission rejected the project. At a July 22, 2009 meeting of the board of supervisors, the developer requested that a final decision on the subdivision be postponed. According to a KFMB Channel 8 story later that day, “Reynolds Communities plans to use the time to alter the design to alleviate the concerns of neighbors. William Schwartz, an attorney representing the developer, said his client was ‘smarter’ now and understands changes are necessary. [In the late 1970s, Schwartz worked in the county counsel’s office specializing in planning and land-use issues.] Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said violations of the general plan for the area, which calls for one home per acre, ‘will not get them where they want to go.’… Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the area, requested that the developer work with area community groups and then resubmit a redesigned project to the Planning Commission.”
But Reynolds Communities “did not attempt to work out differences with the community,” according to Phillips. When the Planning Commission took up the project for the second time on January 8, the developer had reduced the housing units from 40 to 36 and decreased the height of the building pad from 16 to 10 feet.
The commission approved the project and has sent it to the board of supervisors for a final vote next Wednesday.
“Those changes were put together by the developer and county staff,” says Phillips. “Our community groups were not consulted. We’ve been able to work with Reynolds Communities on other projects, but not this time. And county staff have been cheerleaders for the project all along.”
Susan Brownlee tells me what it was like going to hearings on Fuerte Ranch Estates. “The developer sits huddling next to a county planner. Community members come up from the gallery to address the commissioners. Suddenly the chairman says, ‘Stop, your two minutes are up.’ It’s very nerve-racking.”