Planners reject expansion bid
A bid to increase the number of head trauma patients from 16 to 52 and to construct four new buildings, a two-story gymnasium and a package wastewater treatment plant in the 16500 block of Highland Valley Road received a resounding no from Ramona planners on Aug. 6.
Highland Valley Ranch wants to modify its major use permit to expand its adult care business at 16585 Highland Valley Road, something neighbors strongly oppose and the planning group considers too much in that area. Opposition focused on traffic, commercial use in an agricultural zone, drainage, patients screaming and yelling profanities and sometimes escaping from the center, water quality, and aesthetics.
The project, also referred to by the neighbors as NeuroCare and Stone Mountain, started about 22 years ago with an allowable six beds for brain-injured patients. In the 1990s, it went through the county’s major use process to allow 16 beds.
“The neighborhood has given,” said RCPG member Dennis Grimes. “They gave at six. They gave at 16. This needs to stop now. The planning group here is only advisory to the county, but we need to do everything we can to have this project stay where it is….We may get overridden here, but we need to take a position and we need to say no.”
Before the property was used to treat brain-injured patients, it was a turkey ranch and an orange grove, neighbor Jack Allen said.
“Your board said we’re going to let you have a special use with the proviso that there will be no expansion, no increase and so on and so forth,” said Allen. “In every case, it’s just like you put a dagger through the heart and it somehow is resurrected, and it’s going to be resurrected until we change an agricultural zone into a commercial zone. What is the purpose of having zoning if you don’t follow it and enforce it?”
The county Department of Planning and Land Use recently issued a draft mitigated negative declaration that has determined that applicant Kevin O’Connor’s project will have no significant effect on the environment and does not require an environmental impact report (EIR).
The Ramona planning group disagrees and voted unanimously to reject the mitigated negative declaration and request the county require an EIR. Among the group’s reasons for rejecting the draft document are aesthetics, hydrology, water quality, land use and planning, and transportation and traffic issues.
RCPG also wants comments from the nearly 75-minute discussion sent to the county.
“I’m sensitive to the passion of the people who want to help (brain-injured patients), but the scope and scale of this project is way beyond what was ever expected to be done out there,” said RCPG member Bob Hailey.
“This facility is a commercial operation in the middle of an agricultural zone,” said neighbor Sally Kloman. “They want to put these people in an area that makes them comfortable. That’s great, but now we’re putting in a gymnasium and an amphitheater and lights. … We’re having head-trauma people playing basketball?”
Visitors to her home ask, “What’s happening? Somebody’s screaming over there for help,” she said
She mentioned sewage problems in the winter. “Now I’m sorry I’ve been such a good neighbor for so many years. I should have been calling the health department and telling them that there’s sewage all over the street.”
“This is a commercial, very lucrative commercial operation,” said Kloman. “They’re making loads of money.”
Neighbor Johnny Romine told the planners, “It’s not a NIMBY (not in my backyard) thing. It’s more like he’s in my front yard. I see the lights from their cars through my family room window. The package treatment plant, from my property, you could probably hit it with a rock.”
Sandee Salvatore commented about DPLU Project Planning Division Chief Brian Baca’s statement in his report that “there is no substantial evidence that the project as revised will have a significant effect on the environment.”
“He sure can’t be talking about my environment,” said Salvatore, a former RCPG member who lives near the 25-acre project. “My environment will be changed forever and not for the better. We’ll deal with more traffic, we’ll deal with lights that do not belong in our quiet little neighborhood. I will deal with more than 200 percent increased probability of having unwelcome contact with his clients. I will deal with the added impact to our emergency medical services.”
The DPLU report does not address pharmaceuticals getting into the groundwater, said Salvatore. “John Hopkins (University) is currently studying just the effect of the pharmaceuticals in our drinking water, and they say millions of doses of prescription drugs that Americans swallow annually to combat cancer, pain, depression and other ailments do not disappear harmlessly into their digestive system. Researchers have determined they instead make their way back into the environment where they contaminate the drinking water and are a threat to aquatic wildlife.”
In addition to members of the project team working on the expansion proposal, two Highland Valley Ranch employees—administrator Frank Keane and case manager Glenn Smith—spoke in favor of the project.
“All we’re trying to do is to help people who have a head injury,” said Keane. “We are a long-term care residential program of folks that have had a TBI (traumatic brain injury) and they are few and far between, not just in the state of California, but in the country…There’s a lot of folks what are going to be coming back from their time overseas. Maybe we’ll have a place for them.”
Smith said he has taken his children on whitewater rafting trips with the patients.
“I’m not going to put my children in any kind of danger with our residents,” he said. “We have a phenomenal reputation.”
The program puts “three times more training into our staff than is required, so we can have a safe, secure environment,” said Smith.
Staffing will be increased to 25 from 10 to accommodate the additional clients, said Mark Thompson of TRS Consultants.
Keane, responding to a question about where brain-injured people now are, said “look at the jails and look at the homeless.” Efforts are under way to get other funding sources, such as the state’s public Medi-Cal system, he said.
“A lot of those people currently have nothing, who are housed in their families’ homes or who are out in the street,” he said.
Highland Valley Ranch would not be getting clients from jails, said Keane, but a Medi-Cal waiver, if approved, “would allow some of those folks to be taken off the streets and put in a place.”
Thompson listed project changes resulting from comments at RCPG subcommittee meetings. The gate was moved 12 feet for more room between the road and gate, a circular drive that connected to a dirt road was removed, and internal traffic is one way in and one way out, he said.
The gym is proposed to be 30 feet at the peak and 20 feet at the eave, 800 feet from Highland Valley Road and surrounded by trees, particularly on the eastern side, where it would be most visible, said Thompson. The wastewater treatment plant and holding pond also will be heavily screened, he said.
Don Bunts from Water 3 Engineering said the treatment plant would resolve any concerns about raw sewage, and only treated effluent will be in the holding pond during wet weather. All of the treated water from the plant will be used for irrigation and will not go into the groundwater, he said.
“My big beef is that this was not supposed to get larger,” said planning group member Katherine L. Finley. “This is a prime example of something that’s probably gone too far.”
The current community plan and the general plan update prohibit package treatment plants, said RCPG Chair Chris Anderson. The scope and scale of the project is excessive for the neighborhood, she added.
“Our position is to defend the (community) plan and the community character, and I think this flies in the face of that on several levels,” said Torry Brean, RCPG member.
“I don’t think it’s a good fit for this area,” said planning group member Paul Stykel. “What you have now already deteriorates the quality of life for the residents in the surrounding area. You’re a commercial venture in an agricultural zone.”
Jim Piva, group member and chair of its Transportation and Trails Subcommittee, complimented the work the program does for head trauma victims.
“But we represent the community of Ramona,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of neighbors here that have been speaking against the project…We haven’t seen any neighbors that are speaking for the project.”
The neighbors aren’t saying shut down the program, Piva said.
“They’ve accepted that fact that you have 16 and they’re OK with that,” he continued. “They just don’t want to see an increase.”
A copy of the county’s Notice of Intent to Adopt a Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration for the expansion is in the Ramona Library at 1406 Montecito Road and online at www.sdcounty.ca.gob/dplu/ceqa_public_review.html.
The county is accepting comments from the public on the report until 4 p.m. Aug. 31. Comments may be sent to DPLU at 5201 Ruffin Road, Suite B, San Diego, CA 92123.
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