Escondido, CA

Council approves controversial sewer flow agreement

The Escondido City Council, over the protests of the Rincon water district and several residents of neighboring Eden Valley, May 15 approved a sewer flow agreement to serve the Valiano project in the unincorporated area adjacent to the city. The city has its eye on a bright glistening plum: a multi-million dollar 5.5 MG (million-gallon) emergency wet weather recycled water storage basin the developer would pay for and give to the city.

This item was continued from the April 10 meeting.

This was the city council’s first 6 p.m. meeting since it adopted the new, later meeting time. The council previously met at 4:30 p.m.

The vote was 4-1 in favor of the staff proposal, with Olga Diaz voting no.

The vote had been postponed from the April meeting when two factors were at work: council members John Masson was out of town, and representatives of the Rincon Municipal Water District had requested the council not approve the agreement and give them time to hammer out some sort of agreement with city staff.

Masson, who was back in his usual seat, said he had watched the April meeting on TV and staff presentation by Utilities Director Chris McKinney. He felt he was up to speed and didn’t need the full presentation.

Nevertheless, McKinney did provide additional comments on what has happened since the April meeting. 

The development is the 326 single-family residential development Valiano Project the Board of Supervisors approved last July, but which is now the subject of litigation. While the project is not within city boundaries, it is in the city’s sphere of influence. But it’s also within the Rincon district, whose boundaries are both inside and out of the city.

According to McKinney, under the agreement the city would provide sewer collection and treatment services for the Valiano project.  The developer will pay about $1.7 million net in sewer connection fees and provide $250,000 for project traffic mitigation; and contribute towards the Citracado Parkway completion. 

The main attraction for the city, said McKinney is the 5.5 MG emergency wet weather recycled water storage basin it would get.

The agreement will require approval by LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) because the development is outside of the city limits. What is more, some portions of the development lie outside of the city’s sphere of influence.

McKinney noted that several speakers spoke against the project in April, including residents from the Harmony Grove, Elfin Forest area who felt that the  project, which had been on the consent calendar, had not gotten proper public notice.

That had included representatives from the Rincon Del Diablo Municipal Water District, who had asked the council not to approve the agreement.  And representatives from the Eden Valley Community, who were concerned the city might be interested in annexing their area.

McKinney said the advantages to the city were obvious, and “includes a pathway for the city to get some nice facilities.”

McKinney said that since that meeting he and other staff had met with Eden Valley residents. He informed them that the agreement’s language which includes a possibility of annexation further down the road was included at staff’s request, not because the developer wanted to be annexed. He told them the city was unlikely to want to annex the area for many years, perhaps many decades. 

The staffs of the city and Rincon also met and discussed the possibility of a joint project where Rincon would operate the collection system, which would then send the water to Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility (HARRF) for treatment. 

McKinney added that the residents of Eden Valley are in litigation to try to stop the Valiano project. If that litigation is successful, he said, the proposed agreement would become moot. 

There were eight speakers to the council on the subject.

Douglas Dill of Elfin Forest said that this action would be an “end run around Prop. S. So you don’t get approval from Escondido voters. This is how you approve high end development without Prop. S approval.”  He said the residents were concerned about inadequate roads for evacuation and called it ironic that the meeting was being held on the fifth anniversary of the Cocos fire. 

Editor’s note: Prop. S requires that large developments be submitted to the voters of Escondido for a vote. The Valiano project has already been approved by the County Board of Supervisors.

Another resident of Eden Valley declared, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch!” and argued that “LAFCO will only do this if you intend to annex the land in the future.” The resident said that when he met with McKinney and Bill Martin that eventually the roads would have to be brought up to city standards if the land is annexed. “So you take the money now and kick the can down the road.”  He called for a “realistic costs assessment.”

Rincon Del Diablo Gen. Mgr. Greg Thomas told the council, “I had hoped we would have more time to work with your staff” [before this vote was taken.” He said he had suggested the idea of the agencies working together, and said, “There are various options.” He noted that Rincon has a Title 22 water reclamation facility that will come on line soon. “Our latent powers gives us the ability to provide sewer.”  He noted that when the Board of Supervisors approved the Valiano project last summer that it had indicated Rincon would be the sewer provider. “The city was considered as one of three options for providing treatment, not collection.”

He said he had no problem with Rincon being the collection agency and providing the effluent to HARFF for treatment. “We have no problem with that. We are talking about a jurisdictional issue. This will go to LAFCO. It will be long and potentially litigious. We are trying to avoid that and come to some form of agreement.”

Erin Lump, who is the vice president of the Rincon board and an alternate commission on LAFCO, said the proposed agreement had “numerous flaws.” She said it was outside of city limits and inside of Rincon’s jurisdiction. “Rincon is the designated sewer provider according to LAFCO. I’m saying we are still going through the process. This agreement is an attempt to force this on the community.”

Lump conceded that “Escondido definitely has some good things coming its way if it gets this. I understand where you are coming from. To constituents it looks like free money.” Then she asked, “Who is representing these people [the people of Elfin Forest and Eden Valley]? Their best interest isn’t being considered here. But we do. Please wait until we continue the planning process.” 

David Drake, another director of the Rincon board repeated that “Rincon water was approved to exercise its latent power to provide sewer. This was part of the county approval. This is not a competition.”

Jeanine Houston, a resident of Eden Valley called her community, “just a teeny little valley. We are caught between multi-jurisdictional questions. We are four square miles in the county. We have to attend the San Marcos city council meetings. We have two fire departments for heaven sakes.”  She asked how this agreement “would benefit the current residents who live there now?  We are going to get a wet weather facility plopped in the middle of us. I’m sure we’re thrilled about that! This is a back end of Prop. S for and we don’t see the benefit. 

I see the benefit to the city but we are getting really shafted on it!” 

Bill Osborne, a former Elfin Forest firefighter declared, “I’m shocked to be standing here on the anniversary of the Cocos fire.” He said Valiano, “provides inadequate evacuation routes. It is a development that does not share boundaries with Escondido. It circumvents Prop. S. Is our safety worth that little to you?” 

After the speakers McKinney addressed some of the points that had been raised and reiterated, “My motivations are to secure some capital and operational benefits to the community. It is true that there will be costs to upgrade those neighborhoods if the city annexed, but the city won’t be bound to annex.”

The city attorney, Michael R. McGuinness, said this process would not be avoiding a Prop. S vote. “A Prop. S battle would take place at the time of annexation,” he said.

Council comments began with councilmember Olga Diaz who asked questions about the Rincon wastewater treatment plant at Harmony Grove.

“It is state of the art, with all the bells and whistles,” said Rincon GM Thomas. He said the plant is operating but waiting permission from the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) to allow the discharge of Title 22 recycled water into Rincon’s recycled water distribution system.  The RWQCB reviews operations and systems of sewer plants and for new ones has to approve it being discharged.”

According to Thomas, “They inspected the plant a couple months ago and had a checklist of items they wanted to see implemented.  The plant treats the wastewater to Title 22 standards and the recycled water is to be used on common area irrigation in the development or put into our recycled water system.” 

The plant is designed for 200,000 gallons a day at normal use.

Diaz asked how long it would take to complete that process. About three months, said Thomas. 

Diaz, who was the sole no vote, said, “I believe in being fair. Doing the right thing; not just in Escondido. To do the right thing for everybody. I’m not opposed to having more time for dialog. Since the project is in litigation there is an air gap. I don’t feel like this is something we need to jump through today. I’m not prepared to support this vote today. I’m not supporting because I don’t feel rushed to do it.”

Masson said, “Prop. S doesn’t have anything to do what we are doing today. The County has already approved the project. We’re not annexing the project or have any intention of annexing the project. I don’t know that annexing means we would have to upgrade the roads. I think we can annex and not force people to pay extra for it.”

He added, “What I hear from staff is that this is a win for the city. We have the capability to treat the water. We did this twenty years ago in North Broadway. It’s been done in the past and we didn’t annex the property.”

Councilmember Mike Morasco asked if approving the agreement would preclude interagency cooperation between the city and Rincon. McKinney said it would not. “As far as the residents who are opposed to the project, that will be decided in the litigation. This is something that will occur as the project goes forth. I will support the vote,” said Morasco.

Councilmember Consuelo Martinez, who did not support the proposal in April because she had wanted to give the staffs more time to work out an agreement, said, “Supporting this would not preclude continuing this conversation. I hear you and understand your concerns. We are not voting on the development, this is simply the sewer.”

Mayor Paul McNamara said he was “very sympathetic to the residents, but we are a couple of hundred thousand residences behind in being built. We are seeing a wave and I don’t see how that is going to stop.”

He continued, “At the end of the day, are we going to support the treatment of the sewer in exchange for monies that we can use for residents? I think that’s a fair trade.”

The mayor said he doesn’t want to encourage the Rincon water district to expand its sewer treatment powers. He has said previously that he is in favor of Rincon being incorporated into the city and so opposes its growth.

“At a more strategic level, I don’t think we should encourage Rincon Del Diablo to get into the sewer business. We don’t need two government agencies determining water. I would not support an expansion of Rincon del Diablo,” said McNamara.

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