State law blocks homeowners’ request to own land
By Joe Naiman
San Diego County supervisors expressed support for converting 119 Oak Tree Ranch units off Black Canyon Road to resident ownership, but they were unwilling to override County Counsel’s advice that approval of the proposal violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
The supervisors’ 5-0 vote continued their May 7 hearing to July 9 so Oak Tree Ranch can provide a new map that would cover only the existing 119 spaces and not the entire 255 spaces allowed by a 1965 zoning variance.
“No matter what decision we make today there’s a good chance we’re going to have litigation involved which will delay everything,” said Supervisor Greg Cox. “If it’s a close call, then I think I have an obligation to rely on County Counsel’s opinion.”
Although a change to resident ownership would not require CEQA review in the absence of future expansion, County Counsel and county Department of Planning and Development Services (PDS) staff believe that CEQA review for the remaining 136 spaces would be required.
“The proposed tentative map is a discretionary action and therefore subject to CEQA,” said PDS project manager Ashley Gungle.
“We must follow the law,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “I think we’re stuck.”
In 1965, the county granted a zoning variance permitting 255 home spaces on the site in the 2200 block of Black Canyon Road.
“Large areas on the site remain in their natural state,” Gungle said. “The project site is only partially developed.”
Although Oak Tree Ranch is considered a mobilehome park, the units are manufactured homes with garages.
Ramona Community Planning Group previously voted 14-0 to approve the revised map, saying the only substantive change is the form of ownership. The county planning commission in January voted 3-3 to recommend denial of the project. Without four supporting votes from the commission, a project is officially denied.
Changing the map to a 119-home project would exempt the existing lots, although, if the remaining 136 spaces are developed after CEQA review, infrastructure complications could result from having different maps.
“Our engineer’s saying it’s not feasible,” Oak Tree Ranch president Bert Caster.
“It’s not technically possible to separate out the 119,” said attorney Richard Close, who represented Oak Tree Ranch.
Attorney Tom Casparian also represented Oak Tree Ranch.
“There are no future 136 mobilehome spaces,”he said. “There is no intent.”
The application does not seek the approval to build a single additional space, Casparian said.
“This application does not allow any expanded use at all,” he said. “It simply allows a change of ownership.”
When and if Caster plans to build more spaces, he will present a grading plan, Casparian said, adding, “No one is looking to avoid appropriate environmental review … Oak Tree Ranch is already permitted for use as a 255-space facility. We’re not seeking any expansion beyond that.”
“This would help us refinance our homes or sell our homes,” said 10-year Oak Tree Ranch resident David Griffin. “We just want to own the land that our houses are on.”
Close explained that the residents could obtain better financing if they shared ownership of the land rather than simply owned the structures.
“This is an issue of making this truly affordable housing,” he said. “This is a question of what’s best for the residents.”
Realtor Marci Morgan explained that the risk of lenders is reduced if borrowers own the land.
“We have been unable to locate available financing,” she said. “This affects the resale value as well.”
Morgan said that Oak Tree Ranch is well-managed and well-maintained.
“This is a community of tight-knit neighbors who have truly become friends,” she said. “The homes at Oak Tree Ranch are also the most affordable homes in the community of Ramona.”
“We are charged with upholding the law,” said Supervisor Dave Roberts. “We’re elected to uphold the law, and the law says that we, unfortunately, cannot approve this.”
Supervisor Bill Horn voted for the continuance but believes that the proposal would not require CEQA review.
“In my opinion I don’t think the law applies to this because it was approved back in 1965,” he said. “I just can’t make the nexus to have this entire thing held up by CEQA.”
Caster and his engineers will attempt to provide a map covering only the 119 spaces but maintains infrastructure access for the existing lots and the potential 136 future lots, although he is not optimistic.
“We probably will end up in court,” he said.
The only member of the public who requested that the supervisors deny the project was Van Collinsworth of Preserve Wild Santee.
“CEQA is our premier environmental law in the state,” he said. “It provides us an opportunity to see the big picture.”
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