Proposed site of development (east of I-15)
It wasn't on the county planning commission's May 15 agenda, but Lilac Hills Ranch, a proposed subdivision near rural Valley Center, came up - just like it keeps coming back.
The county had given the current developer, Ranch Capital, a May 20 deadline to withdraw the project – which includes 1,746 homes, retail and a 200-bed assisted living facility – due to serious fire safety flaws.
Attempts to obtain easements for brush clearing from property owners along West Lilac Road, a planned evacuation route, had failed. Lacking a viable alternative, the project is headed to the board of supervisors on June 24 with a recommendation of denial, said Mark Wardlaw, director of Planning & Development Services.
But the developer chose not to withdraw.
With the deadline looming, commissioners discussed finding "solutions" to the impasse. Last week, an attorney for two environmental groups warned the commission in a letter that their "discussion and action at the May 15 meeting violated the Brown Act."
That is, Lilac Hills wasn't anywhere on the agenda, so those who might want to weigh in had no notice.
Under the Brown Act, topics not on the agenda are limited to things like asking a question for clarification and brief announcements or reports. The discussion "went far beyond" the types of comments allowed on non-agendized topics, and lasted for over twenty minutes, the letter said.
The conversation began with mention of the deadline to fix the fire safety issue.
"I'm a bit dismayed," said commissioner Edwards, citing how much time and effort staff and the commission had put into it, and volunteering to help resolve the issues before it goes to the board. He suggested setting up "a short ad hoc meeting with an ad hoc group to report back to the commission."
According to the letter from attorney Sara Clark, doing so "would directly conflict with county requirements" regarding impartial, transparent decision-making. The solution-finding would "presumably take place behind closed doors and without any public input," leaving the public out of the conversation about serious safety issues.
A few commissioners said they thought it was permissible to form an ad hoc committee without public notice, they had done it before.
"I for one think it's possible to find a solution, and I'd like the opportunity to forward that to the board" said commissioner Woods - if the director allowed them to form a subcommittee. "Which I think we can on our own but I'm not sure on that issue."
Neither was the chairman.
"Can we?" he asked the county counsel. "I don't want to discuss the item, but is it possible to, in a general question?" If an issue arose with a project, and commissioners are volunteering their time to meet with staff and the applicant, is that allowed?
It was "probably something an ad hoc committee can do for a limited purpose and time," said county counsel Thomas Montgomery, but since it wasn't before them that day, they couldn't make any decisions. "I don't believe you can appoint an ad hoc committee to work with the applicant" - it would have to be put on a future agenda.
The idea didn't sit well with commissioner Seiler.
"I'm getting a real uncomfortable feeling that we'd put an ad hoc committee together to promote a project that's already been found inadequate relative to fire protection," he said.
"If commissioners go into an ad hoc committee to do that, to find a way to make this work, I think by right they should be recused from voting on that project. They now have a vested interest in it."
In an update on the project, Mark Wardlaw, director of planning & development services, described how it was first proposed by the Accretive Group in 2012, later rejected by voters, then in 2017 was picked up by a new applicant.
"Then came the worst fires that California has seen."
There was also a change in fire marshall services with the Deer Springs Fire Protection District. For those reasons, the fire authority reviewed the project and raised a series of concerns about its fire safety design and evacuation suitability.
Despite clear direction about necessary changes, only a few were able to be incorporated, along with some alternative routes. But the main problem is the inability to obtain 20-foot easements along West Lilac Road.
"We've been working with the applicant for over a year to address those issues and the fire authority has determined that the project is unsafe as currently designed," he said.
The meeting ended with chairman Barnhart announcing he would appoint commissioners Edwards and Woods, who also expressed interest, to an ad hoc committee. And they would put it on the agenda the next time.
"It's pretty tough to get a project through this commission if you've got the fire authority saying it's unsafe," the chairman said.
"But I'm not so sure the accommodations can't be made."