The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved three new housing projects on July 25, including Harmony Grove Village South and Valiano that will bring 779 new homes to North County San Diego. The projects were not without opposition from residents in Harmony Grove and the neighboring communities of Elfin Forest, Rancho Santa Fe and Escondido, with many expressing concerns about the fire risk of adding more density as well as exceeding the number of homes allowed by approving amendments to the county’s General Plan.
San Diego County is limited to four General Plan Amendments (GPA) a year but a single amendment may include multiple sub-items, referred to as batching. Due to the batching, the county will review seven proposed housing developments for the unincorporated areas this year, totaling more than 10,000 units.
“While it’s true we need more housing throughout the county, it doesn’t mean we rubber stamp every project that comes before this board,” said SD County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kristin Gaspar.
Gaspar said the batching process is not new but the backcountry growth initiative Safeguard our San Diego Countryside, which would require voter approval for GPAs that increase residential density in rural and semi-rural areas of the unincorporated county, incentivized property owners to move forward more aggressively, creating the number of big projects coming before the board in a short period of time.
At the batched hearing, the supervisors heard and voted on each project separately, a meeting that lasted nearly seven hours. Harmony Grove Village South (453 residential units) and Valiano (326 units in Eden Valley, south of Escondido) and a mixed-use development in Otay Ranch with 3,158 residential units were all included in the batch.
Gaspar said she had some reservations about the batching process and would prefer projects to be heard independently but noted that all of the projects still go through the necessary level of review and public input.
“For me, projects outside of the General Plan require even more scrutiny than projects within it,” Gaspar said.
At the hearing, Rancho Santa Fe resident Laurel Lemarie, a member of the San Dieguito Planning Group that recommended denial of both the Harmony Grove and Valiano projects, presented a petition of 923 signatures opposed to the county allowing a high density of homes where rural or semi-rural zoning now exists. The petition stated that the density will negatively effect the already overburdened Del Dios Highway and the air quality, water use and community character of surrounding neighborhoods.
Rancho Santa Fe resident Holly Manion said allowing more density only pushes more cut-through traffic onto Rancho Santa Fe streets that are not designed to handle the increases or speeds.
“This project alone will dilute the quality of life in Rancho Santa Fe that we know and love and trust and have fought to protect for over 100 years,” Manion said.
Public comment at the hearing was dominated by talk of fire risk as several project opponents expressed concerns about evacuation in a wildfire event as the development does not have a second access road, and the development and all surrounding residents must share the only safe evacuation route on Country Club Drive. “
“We are beseeching you not to permit projects in an area that will become a death trap,” said Jacqueline Arsvisaud, chair of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council.
She said in 2014 Cocos Fire her community only had 100 people and they were stuck and unable to evacuate because the two-lane Country Club Drive was the only way out. With the new homes she fears evacuation could become even more dangerous.
“It is a recipe for disaster,” said Eden Valley resident Andrew Laderman. “I would ask that you don’t prioritize the profits of land speculators above of the health, safety and pursuit of happiness of the residents you’re elected to represent.”
San Diego County Consolidated Fire Code requires a secondary road when a project is proposed on a dead-end road of more than 800 feet; Harmony Grove Village South is on a 4,000-foot long dead-end road.
According to county staff, design features have been implemented that are superior to any secondary access alternative and the fire protection plan created for the project is one of the most intensely analyzed by consultants and agencies in the last 20 years.
Project measures and features exceed code requirements, including a third travel lane for the entirety of Country Club Drive, fuel modification zones on site and ignition resistant construction.
The evacuation plan has been approved by the County Fire Authority and Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District and they have found that even with the additional traffic from the project, the long evacuation time experienced during the Cocos Fire are expected to be reduced due to improved evacuation routes and a coordinated plan.There have also been other improvements since the Cocos Fire—the project will be served by a new fire station in Harmony Grove Village operated by the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, approximately 1.3 miles away, improvements to Harmony Grove Village Road and a new three-lane bridge across Escondido Creek.
County Supervisor Bill Horn said he is always concerned about fire and making sure that they are not creating a “fire trap” is a major issue. The board received reassurances from public officials and fire experts such as County Fire Chief Tony Mecham that the project and the plan were safe.
“I understand it’s emotional, it’s emotional for all of us,” said San Marcos Fire Chief Brett Van Wey, who said they never want to put the lives of the public or emergency responders at risk. Van Wey said they have learned something from every fire event and continue to get better—he said, as an example, in the 2017 Lilac Fire they learned a lot about large animal evacuations.“We’re making better, safer communities, that’s why I think we’re confident,” Van Wey said.
The next General Plan amendment to be considered will be Newland Sierra, a 2,135-unit development in Twin Oaks Valley north of Escondido and the another batch is expected to be heard in October, which would include Otay Village, Warner Ranch in Pala (780 units) and possibly the Lilac Hills Ranch project in Valley Center (1,746 units). Escondido resident Camille Zeleny said the county spent 13 years and $18 million to craft the General Plan which designates growth in the right areas, without amendments. She said the batches of amendments “make a mockery” of the General Plan and erode the public’s confidence in their representatives.
“What was the point if you’re just going to throw it in the trash?” Zeleny asked. “You strip us of our voices when you do this bundling.”
The supervisors noted in their votes of approval that the county needs more homes—public comments in support of the developments cited a 54,000 unit housing shortage in San Diego County and rents that have risen 35 percent since 2007. California Department of Housing and Community Development officials recently determined that over 171,000 units need to be built in the next cycle from 2021 to 2029.
Elfin Forest resident JP Theberge, of Grow the San Diego Way, argued that most of the housing proposed by the upcoming General Plan amendment batches will not deliver housing that is affordable or help solve the county’s problem.
“We’ve consistently overproduced high-end housing,” Theberge said. “It’s not a shortage of housing, it’s a shortage of attainable housing.”
David Kovach, the applicant for Harmony Grove Village South said that his project does provide “desperately needed” housing, focusing development in and around existing communities, services and businesses in an effort to strengthen the town center while minimizing the intrusion into open space. He said the diverse home types in the project will target entry level and middle income level workforce housing.
“I can understand the community frustrations because general plans give people the false security that nothing will ever change and it’s not the case because we have the state looming over us,” Gaspar said.
Gaspar noted that they are required by the state to take their fair share of regional growth—in the last 10-year housing cycle, the state handed the county 22,000 housing units to be accounted for in unincorporated areas. Currently in year nine of the cycle, the county has built just a little over 4,000. Gaspar said that the number doesn’t go away at the end of the cycle and will only be added to, a “vicious cycle” over and over again.
“As a community it’s about time that we start getting behind good projects because we’re in a really bad place and we need to start accommodating for growth,” Gaspar said. “If we don’t have housing stock in this region the prices will continue to go up.”