Lawsuits filed against Harmony Grove developments

The Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council has initiated litigation against the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for its approval of the Harmony Grove Village South and Valiano housing projects. According to a release, the lawsuit is being filed to “protect public safety, defend the integrity of the County’s General Plan and demand supervisors get serious about affordable housing.”

On Aug. 23, the notices of intent to sue were filed on behalf of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council, Endangered Habitats League and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. Additionally, the Sierra Club filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to require the County rescind its decisions made “in violation of its statutory duty to not approve environmentally damaging projects without adopting all feasible mitigation for such harm and in derogation of its statutory duty to properly enforce and not improperly amend its General Plan”.

The Rancho Santa Fe Association board last week said it would not move forward in joining a lawsuit or filing its own legal action.

“Cleveland National Forest Foundation has a long history of challenging public agency collusion with sprawl developers that has ravaged forest, field and farm and left our cities bereft of transit, bike and walk infrastructure that would truly solve the housing and climate crisis,” said Duncan McFetridge, director of CNFF. “The Valiano and Harmony Grove Village South projects represent the worst of all worlds: freeways to sprawl that enrich the clever ones while the public and the planet bear the cost. We are honored to join with the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council and fight the good fight.”

The two General Plan amendment projects approved by the board of supervisors last month represent a total of 779 new housing units in Harmony Grove and Eden Valley, south of Escondido. The projects faced opposition from neighboring residents due to the fire risk of adding more density in a high fire hazard severity zone as well as exceeding the number of homes allowed in the General Plan.

Rancho Santa Fe resident Laurel Lemarie, a member of the San Dieguito Planning Group that recommended denial of both 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 Sierra Club’s writ questions whether the county has fully complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), particularly regarding greenhouse gas emissions generated by the approved projects, and additionally questions the “improper” use of batching projects in an attempt to avoid the limitation on the number of General Plan amendments that the county can adopt in a year.

The county is limited to four General Plan amendments a year but a single amendment may include multiple sub-items, referred to as batching. With the batching, the board approved three GPA projects on July 25 for a total of 3,937 new housing units in the county. In total the supervisors are expected to hear seven GPAs by the end of this year, including Newland Sierra, a 2,135-unit development in Twin Oaks Valley north of Escondido and possibly the 1,746-unit Lilac Hills Ranch project in Valley Center.

With their approvals of Harmony Grove Village South and Valiano, the supervisors stated the critical need for more housing in the county. Jacqueline Arsivaud, chair of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council, argued that neither project will provide affordable housing.

“The County General Plan requires that whenever a large General Plan amendment project is proposed, an affordable housing element must be included. Yet this group of four supervisors choked and did not have the political will when they had the tool and the chance to require housing the average North County resident could afford,” Arsivaud said. “This represents a missed opportunity to recapture for public benefit some part of the gain in land value resulting from their public action.”

With the legal action, the "united rural communities" of Harmony Grove, Elfin Forest and Eden Valley will question whether the projects were approved in violation of county and state fire code regulations. The area has experienced “significant” wildfire losses—40 structures burned down during the Cocos Fire in 2014, burning a majority of one development’s project area and reaching the border of another. Cal Fire has designated the area a "Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” and residents have expressed concerns that the only evacuation route is the two-lane Country Club Drive.

During the projects’ July 25 hearing, county staff and fire experts said that the fire protection plan developed for the projects was extensive with measures that met and exceeded San Diego County Consolidated Fire Code. Measures included including a third travel lane for the entirety of Country Club Drive, fuel modification zones on site and ignition resistant construction. The evacuation plan was also approved by the County Fire Authority and Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.

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