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Planners must work against time to get in comments about Lilac Hills Ranch


July 14, 2013
Valley Center Planning Group members fear the deck may be stacked against them by the County when it comes to commenting on the environmental impact report (EIR) for the controversial Lilac Hills Ranch project.

The 608 acre, 1,746 unit community, planned as a multi-phased, mixed use development, is proposed for the west side of town near the I-15 Corridor. The developer, the Accretive Group, has previously projected that it will be ready to go the Board of Supervisors next year.

The project's draft EIR was released during the week of July 4, a fact planning group member Rich Rudolf found suspicious because it meant people had less time than normal to respond. The planning group and the public have a 45-day window from its release to submit comments. The deadline is Aug. 19, a week before the group's next monthly meeting. The group has been looking at the technical reports used to create the EIR for the project ever since they were released in advance of the EIR in July.

The Lilac Hills Ranch is its own special beast because it was proposed outside of the County's General Plan and is being processed by order of the Board of Supervisors. It would drastically change the zoning and density for the land it is proposed for, mainly unused farmland and some low density residential parcels.

At Monday's planning group meeting members said that County's new streamlined rules for processing projects mean that planning groups and others are limited to commenting one time on aspects of a project, rather than having "more than one bite of the apple." Some members think this process is flawed because the proponent can change course and make alterations after the planning group comments, but the group won't have the opportunity to comment on those changes.

Planning Chairman Oliver Smith said, "The County is looking at this as their one bite out of the apple. The County has changed the process so that each group like the planning group has one opportunity to comment. The documents that were released before July were not complete."

Up until now the planners, including Steve Hutchison's Lilac Hills Ranch subcommittee, have reviewed the individual technical reports as they were "dribbled out." "That doesn't count in our first bite in the apple," said Smith, but complained "They can ignore us after we give them our input. Anything new that we have not reviewed because they changed direction does not get sent down the County because we already had our time to respond."

Smith included an oblique reference to Accretive, which the group has sparred with for several years. "In my limited experience with projects big and small I have found a particular applicant to not offer information clearly, up front, and I found it to be subversive in some cases and I'm really concerned that after we have our first bite at the apple that whole bunches of things will change majorly."

Smith said he thought Valley Center should try to maintain the right to respond to changes and "have that response respected." He added that planning groups' only power is the power to recommend. "We have a choice as to the recommendations we make. We can say not only no, but hell no, or we take a reasonable approach. In that case the County may not listen but at least they won't toss it in the trash."

He added that it might be necessary for the planners to have an extra meeting to accommodate this workload. "If we have to do that, so be it. It's important for Valley Center for us to do it."

Rudolf said that whatever recommendations the planners make, they should realize that when the Board of Supervisors vote on the project that it will be a political vote. "The board can, if they choose, completely disregard any number of serious reasons for not approving the project."

Critics of the old way of processing projects complained that it was designed to delay projects for years and years while planning groups took innumerable "bites of the apple." Such complaints led to the Red Tape Task Force, many of whose recommendations were adopted by the County Board of Supervisors. This led to the replacement of the old Dept. of Planning & Land Use by Planning & Development Services, which, since it even has "development" in its name, must obviously be friendly to such activities.

The project is currently processing the Master Tentative Map and the Implementing Tentative Map for the first (northernmost) phase. Details on the project may be found at http://www.lilachillsranch.com/ Anyone who wishes to make a comment is welcome to do so by email, snail mail, or walk in their comments to Mark Slovick, project manager for the County.

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