Proposal gives county final say on fire plans

Whether general plan amendments recommended by the county’s planning commission July 17 are semantic or substantive was the debate at that hearing. But if the intent of county staff was to clarify that the planning commission and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors have the final decision-making authority on a proposed development’s fire mitigation plan, the proposed amendments leave no doubt.

The board of supervisors must approve any general plan amendments, but the Planning Commission voted 6-0, with Peder Norby absent, to recommend approval of the amendments that include alternatives to impact fees paid when new development requires Sheriff’s Department facilities to be expanded.

“The changes proposed simply clarify the long-standing practice,” said county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) Deputy Director Jeff Murphy. “We do not feel that anything is going to change from our current policies.”

The current county practice of referring development projects to the appropriate fire protection agencies, as well as to the Sheriff’s Department, will not be changed. The fire agencies and Sheriff’s Department recommend conditions, but the county is not obliged to include those conditions in its acceptance of a project.

“The question of who has final authority has increasingly surfaced after the 2007 wildfires,” said DPLU Director Eric Gibson. “Questions are increasingly being raised on who has final say on mitigation and conditioning.”

Two changes are proposed to the fire protection and emergency services chapter of the general plan’s public facilities element. One is semantic, changing “fire protection and emergency service facilities” to “facilities for fire protection and emergency services” while leaving unchanged the language that requires findings that sufficient facilities are or will be available.

The other change involves referring projects subject to discretionary review to the appropriate fire protection agency.

The agency’s “fire protection requirements and conditions” would be replaced by “its comments and recommendations regarding fire prevention and fire protection measures.”

“In the end it is the county decision-making body’s authority,” Gibson said.

If the fire protection agency and DPLU staff do not agree on conditions, a planning commission hearing and possible appeal to the board of supervisors will determine the final conditions.  

“That does happen on occasion when we have a difference of opinion,” Murphy said. “These two differences come before you in a public forum.”

The referral to the fire protection agency also involves a request for a service letter indicating that the fire agency can provide service to the new development. In the case of a negative service letter, DPLU staff must recommend denial of the project, although the planning commission and board of supervisors are not bound by that recommendation.

“I am not aware of any instances where that’s occurred. Usually at the staff level we give great weight to the input of the fire agencies,” Gibson said.

“I’ve sat here for 16 years and I can’t recall once,” said Commissioner Bryan Woods, this year’s commission chairman.

The county’s final decision-making authority on conditions does not enable it to override ordinances passed by a fire protection district or other public agency.  

“The district still has the authority to impose its regulations,” said Bill Taylor, county counsel representative. “This doesn’t propose to change any of that.”

Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Cliff Hunter, previously the county’s fire marshal and a fire service employee since 1970, supports the recommended amendments.  

“It’s clarifying that process,” he said. “We don’t make decisions on land use. We make decisions on fire.”

Hunter noted that some development projects pay for fire stations if existing fire protection facilities could not adequately serve the new project.

Fire protection consultant Bob Caputo noted that a fire agency’s review of a project includes situation-specific issues and compatibility with service to the rest of the community.

“The codes are not so much like penal codes or building codes,” he said.  “That expertise needs to remain in the fire district.”

Oliver Smith sits on the boards of both the Valley Center Community Planning Group and the Valley Center Fire Protection District.  

“We’re basically saying no unless they are willing to sign onto a Mello-Roos agreement,” Smith said of development requests.

(A Mello-Roos agreement levies assessments against a property to pay for neighborhood services.)

“We fully understand that the board of supervisors and only the board of supervisors has the authority to override,” Smith said. “It requires due process for them to override that, and we want to make sure that due process is not lost.”

Stonegate’s Merriam Mountain proposed development, which has not yet been brought to the commission for approval, would build approximately 2,700 homes in the Deer Springs Fire Protection District. Stonegate proposed a shelter-in-place strategy to the fire protection district as an alternative to infrastructure to support the evacuation of up to 8,000 residents, but the fire marshal recommended against shelter-in-place due to vegetation and other issues.

“We are very, very concerned,” said former Deer Springs Fire Protection District Board member Joan Van Ingen. “There’s a hundred years worth of old fire stuff there.”

Robert Bruce Tebbs is currently on that fire district board.

“In determining who has responsibility, there are overlaps,” he said. “We are sworn to apply all laws.”

Tebbs also addressed the Merriam Mountain development.  

“If we don’t address evacuation, that giant hole is left there,” he said.

Planning Commissioner Adam Day noted that DPLU staff also includes fire service coordinators Ralph Steinhoff and Ken Miller.  

“We’re being prudent by receiving expert opinions,” Day said.  “That balance is in place with Mr. Steinhoff and Mr. Miller.”

The two changes involving the law enforcement chapter are substantive but drew no complaints.  One of those allows for “similar means” as an alternative to a development impact fee if the increased development would warrant expansion of Sheriff’s Department facilities while the other specifies that other means may include direct payments for services, construction of facilities or other contributions acceptable to the county. The changes are intended to provide flexibility to ensure that services are adequate for new development projects.

   
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