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Lawsuits against Board of Supervisors might affect local large developments

Jacqueline Arsivaud

 ‘Just because the system is rigged doesn’t mean we have to take it’— Jacqueline Arsivaud

A lawsuit filed against the Board of Supervisors by a former candidate for the board and her allies could put in jeopardy— or possibly just slow down—several large developments the county Department of Planning & Development Services had planned to get approved before the current lame duck supervisors are termed out of office at the end of 2017.

The Board fast-tracked approval of nearly 4,000 homes this week, all in areas where the General Plan formerly limited development, including 1,000 in North County, with 3,000 in Otay Mesa.

These developments are NOT within Escondido, but are nearby, in the unincorporated areas, which are outside of the city limits. 

The first lawsuit was  followed by another lawsuit, this one filed by the Sierra Club asking the court to rescind the approvals the Board of Supervisors gave on July 25 to the Harmony Grove Village South Project, the Valiano Project, and the Otay 250 Project, which would build a total of just under 4,000 units. It asked for a “writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief.”

According to Jacqueline Arsivaud, board chairman of Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council, the lawsuits filed by her council, plus the Endangered Habitats League (EHL) and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation (CNFF): “are being filed against San Diego County Board of Supervisors for approving sprawl-style luxury housing developments in high fire danger area in violation of County, State and Fire code regulations, while ignoring mandate for affordable housing component.”

Arsivaud unsuccessfully ran for the fifth district Supervisor seat currently held by Bill Horn. During her campaign she was quoted as saying “Just because the system is rigged doesn’t mean we have to take it.”

The projects in question, Harmony Grove Village South (RCS) and Valiano (Integral Communities) were granted permission to amend the recently approved General Plan, a consensus-based roadmap required by State Law that seeks to prevent development in fire- prone areas, as well as locate growth near established infrastructure and away from valuable habitat. 

Arsivaud commented, “The public spent $18 million over a 13-year period to develop that roadmap, the result of extensive negotiations between key stakeholders such as representatives from the building industry, communities, and environmental organizations.”

“This approval goes against the General Plan, which focuses growth in Villages,” said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League. “We also object to an unsound plan to address greenhouse gas emissions and in putting more and more people at high risk of wildfire.”

Arsivaud predicts these are just the first salvos in a long drawn out legal contest. “This marks the first of likely numerous lawsuits challenging the County’s controversial ‘batching’ of multiple General Plan Amendments (GPAs) in order to approve more than the limit of four GPAs per year imposed under state law,” she said. “With close to 50 (FIFTY) amendments being considered this year alone, well over 10,000 houses could get approved through this controversial process by combining them all into four ‘batches.’ ”

She was alluding to developments that are closer to Escondido, such as Lilac Hills Ranch, or Newland Sierra, and which might get hit by similar lawsuits if they are approved by the Supervisors.

“CNFF 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, 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.”

Arsivaud’s group, the “united rural communities” of Harmony Grove, Elfin Forest and Eden Valley, one of the oldest communities in North County, is a rural enclave in a fire-prone valley that has experienced significant wildfire losses once or twice a decade including loss of life. 

Most recently, 40 structures burned down during the Coco’s Fire in 2014 burning a majority of one development’s project area and reaching the border of another.

Residents of those communities point out  that Cal Fire designated this area a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” with only one two-lane road serving as the sole viable evacuation route, the County has waived crucial fire code requirements including the dead end road standard which requires a secondary egress to avoid entrapment. 

“Supervisors have chosen not to expand the evacuation capacity while increasing density by up to 1800%. This is exactly the type of Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) development that fire experts point to as a key factor in increasingly destructive and expensive fires,” said the press release from the group.  “The County is saying the developments are safe while also admitting that the roads won’t be able to support evacuating in less than 2 hours. The reality is that Cal Fire is betting on residents being able to shelter-in-place during the inevitable wildfires that will hit the community, as San Diego County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham stated in his interview with KPBS.”

In the July 25 Board of Supervisors hearing KBPS quoted Mecham: “One of the things that we see with newer developments, that are built to the modern fire safety standards, include larger road segments, fuel modification, and water supplies, often times it is much safer to leave people in their communities than put them on the road.”

Arsivaud, testifying to the supervisors, was not buying it. “What we have been able to find, by hiring our own fire consultant and our own traffic engineers, is that at least 2,000 to 3,000 people and hundreds of horses would be trapped, that really is the decision that you are voting on today,” she said.

She and fellow critics of the shelter in place strategy consider it to be untested and dangerous and argue that it should only be used in a last resort. 

Realtor and Housing Advocate Kirk Effinger, an Escondido resident, challenges several of the assumptions of the housing opponents. “The canard that the County General Plan is somehow different from all other plans and that it allows no revision is disingenuous. The ‘villages’ in the current Plan in no way reflect reality. Does anyone really believe that development clustered around remote incorporated towns like Ramona and Borrego Springs will: 1) ever be built; 2) be safer from wildfires; or, 3) be better in curbing greenhouse gasses?” he asked.

Effinger added, “The suggestion that professional planners are in cahoots is an insult to the professionals who work on our behalf. The assumption being promulgated is that all projects magically get approved. Reality argues to the contrary. Many proposed developments never see the light of day because they are poorly-planned. How can anyone argue that the system is rigged when developers put at risk millions of dollars and years of precious time in a process that is clearly designed against them?”

Arsivaud also criticizes the supervisors for not addressing affordable housing in their approvals. “The justification for changing the general plan / zoning of the area is the housing crisis. 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,” said Arsivaud, “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. This represents a missed opportunity to recapture for public benefit some part of the gain in land value resulting from their public action.” 

She noted that the County’s staff analysis shows that both projects will average between $670,000 and $770,000 based on what the adjacent development, Harmony Grove Village, is selling for. 

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