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San Diego supervisors reject housing development over fire concerns

by Joshua Emerson Smith, San Diego Union-Tribune |

SAN DIEGO – County elected officials on Wednesday rejected the proposed Lilac Hills Ranch housing development citing wildfire concerns.

The Board of Supervisors voted four-to-one to reject the more than 1,700-home master-planned community near Valley Center. Supervisor Jim Desmond cast the lone vote in opposition, citing the need for housing.

The development would’ve require amending the county’s general plan, which currently allows for just 110 units to be built on the site.

“Any project that blows up our general plan and puts property and life in peril (is) not acceptable,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob at Wednesday’s public hearing.

“This is a bad project,” she added. “It’s in the wrong location.”

Lilac Hills has been through numerous incarnations over the last decade and was overwhelming rejected by voters after the developer put it on the 2016 ballot.

The housing developer — formerly Accretive Investments, now called Village Communities — has struggled for years to deal with how it would evacuate a projected 5,000 new residents in the area during an aggressive wind-driven blaze.

The county has approved a number of other projects despite similar wildfire concerns voiced by environmental groups and nearby residents, such as Adara at Otay Ranch and Newland Sierra.

However, fire officials and county staff said this project was especially dangerous because, among other things, resident would likely become trapped on West Lilac Road during a wildfire evacuation.

Jon Rilling, project manager for Lilac Hills Ranch, rejected the county’s assessment.

“The project does not exacerbate fire-safety concerns along West Lilac, but rather residents along this road will be safer if the project is built because there will be more ways to get out and vegetation management funded,” he said.

Among other things, county fire officials concluded that the developer would’ve needed to secure 20-foot easements along both sides of the road for brush maintenance. The developer wasn’t able to secure the requested legal agreements from nearby property owners.

Cal Fire San Diego Unit Chief Tony Mecham also said that a center median proposed by the developer would not adequately increase the capacity of the road during an intense firestorm.

“The risk of the entrapment brought about along West Lilac Road from a project exiting to the north exceeds what we feel to be an acceptable level of risk,” he said, adding: “That fire’s going to approach very quickly from the east, and I can tell you from a tactual standpoint, there is no place for us to hold a fire until it gets into the community.”

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher also mentioned that the project relied on meeting restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from car and trucks using a county offset program that has been rejected by the courts on multiple occasions.

“The general plan says this is the wrong place,” he said. “The fire chief says this is wrong. The voters have said this is wrong. The courts ... have said the offset scheme associated with general plan amendments are wrong. So how many times and how many different ways over how many years do we have to be told that this just isn’t going to work?”

Citing the need for housing, Desmond made a motion, which ultimately failed, to send the project back to county staff for revisions. After roughly a decade of negotiations over the project, the rest of the board signaled no appetite to draw out the process any longer.