San Diego County Planning Commission voted Friday to recommend approval of the proposed Montecito Ranch subdivision, including the construction and operation of an on-site wastewater reclamation facility. The project is for 417 single-family homes on 935.2 acres, with most of the property left in open space.
The commission’s 6-0-1 vote, with Commissioner Michael Beck abstaining, recommends the approval of the proposed rezone, general plan amendment, specific plan amendment, tentative map, site plan, major use permits and environmental impact report (EIR) certification for the project.
Although the commission has the authority to approve tentative maps, major use permits, site plans and EIRs, the county Board of Supervisors must approve rezones, general plan amendments and specific plan amendments, so county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff will prepare the project for docketing at a supervisors’ meeting.
Beck said he abstained due to open space bisection issues, which met various county standards but would create potential noise and other impacts. The bulk of the debate was whether to approve the major use permit for the on-site sewer treatment plant or to require connection to the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) Santa Maria treatment plant. RMWD will provide water to the project.
Proposed lot sizes range from 20,000 square feet — just less than one-half acre — to 1.8 acres. Also included in the project are an 8.3-acre public park, an 11.9-acre historic park, approximately seven miles of trails, an equestrian facility and 571.2 acres of biological open space. The flatter areas of the open space preserve were specifically located to augment the Ramona Grasslands adjacent on the west.
The lots would include four homeowners association maintenance lots, two detention structure lots and a pump station lot. A historic park and active park would be for use by the general public. The historic park would include the Montecito Ranch house, and the active park would include picnic and play areas, tot lots, ballfields, and sports areas.
The project would construct Montecito Ranch Road to connect Ash Street with Montecito Way and would also construct several local neighborhood streets. Off-site improvements would widen Ash Street and Montecito Road. Improvements also would be made to the intersections of Pine and Ash streets, Pine and Main streets, Main Street and Montecito Road, Montecito Way and Montecito Road, Highland Valley and Dye roads, and Archie Moore Road and state Route 67. Although the EIR found significant impacts to state routes 78 and 67 that cannot be mitigated by the project, that inability to mitigate involves California Department of Transportation jurisdiction, which is beyond the purview of the project applicant, according to the report to the commission.
DPLU and county Department of Public Works (DPW) staff recommended sewer connection to the Ramona Municipal Water District, which has issued a service availability letter. The site is not within the water district’s latent powers area for sewer service, and Local Agency Formation Commission approval would be required either to create a community services district for an on-site plant or to activate sewer service latent powers. County staff believes that the cost of both options is identical, although the applicant and planning commission members disagreed. The estimate of county staff was that annual service costs of connecting to the water district would be approximately 20 percent of the annual costs of an on-site facility.
On Dec. 3, 2009, the Ramona Community Planning Group voted 9-4 to recommend approval of the project, and two days earlier the Ramona Trails and Transportation Subcommittee unanimously recommended conditional approval.
“Over the years the proponent has listened to our community,” said Ramona Community Planning Group Chair Chris Anderson. “There are a great many benefits that will be provided to the community.”
While Anderson was willing to support connection to the water district, she also noted that such a scenario would require an alternative for planned spray fields.
“We are very limited on spray fields,” she said. “It would benefit our community tremendously if we could work an agreement out.”
The property owners have been working on a plan for 12 years.
“It’s taken that long to get a project which is supported by everybody,” said developer Bruce Tabb.
“We believe Montecito Ranch represents a balance in design and in development,” said Chris Brown, Montecito Ranch project manager.
Ash Street resident Richard Tomlinson, a Ramona planning group member, ran for a seat on the planning group due to his opposition to Montecito Ranch but said that the redesign has satisfied his concerns.
“Now I have become a great supporter of this project,” he said. “It’s good for the environment. I think it’s good for the town of Ramona.”
Tabb opposed a requirement to connect to the Ramona Municipal Water District based on cost.
“It will simply bankrupt the project,” he said.
Consultant Dexter Wilson said that the cost to construct a sewer secondary treatment plant and a recycled water tertiary treatment plant is about $3.5 million while costs to connect to the RMWD plant totaled approximately $16.4 million. RMWD cited an annual $538 ongoing cost per dwelling unit.
The on-site plan would contract with Dudek and Associates for plant operation. Dudek project manager Jeff Pape indicated an annual rate of $995 per unit to cover total operating, maintenance and capital fund costs of $445,760. The capital fund would place $50,000 annually into eventual repair and replacement expenditures.
“I think it’s an excellent alternative,” said Ramona Chamber of Commerce director Carol Fowler, who noted that the project itself and its new residents would benefit Main Street businesses.
Karl Higgins of the Ramona Air Center cited similar RMWD cost estimates in his attempt to connect his hangar to the district’s sewer facilities.
“We have the same problem that Montecito Ranch does,” Higgins said. “We don’t want to buy the plant. We just want to hook up.”
Jack Reber of Sonora Way said his objections to the project extend beyond the loss of his viewshed.
“It does surprise me that someone put spray fields in a flood plain,” he said.
“We believe that the spray fields are not in a flood plain,” Brown said.
The dialogue also included the history of the Mount Woodson sanitation district, which merged with RMWD when the RMWD connection costs decreased to an amount equivalent to the cost of constructing the on-site facility, which had been approved but was not yet been built.
“It’s cleaner, it’s quicker,” Commissioner Adam Day said of the on-site option.
“I personally am satisfied with the comments on the wastewater treatment plant,” said Commissioner Bryan Woods.
Beck noted that Montecito Ranch Road, the equestrian facility, the ballparks, and the trails bisect the center of the open space areas.
“These impacts are fragmenting the system,” he said. “Estate houses out there would have less impact, in my opinion, than what’s being proposed.”
DPLU responded that those areas had been disturbed due to previous agricultural operations and that the trails were primarily along areas already disturbed. The project would have a resource management plan.