Numbers do count. That was the thought of the many Mussey Grade Road residents who packed the meeting room to hear the Ramona Community Planning Group’s (RCPG) decision on the proposed expansion of the Salvation Army camp and retreat.
Those who were poised to speak out against the project at the Feb. 4 meeting never got the chance, because the planning group, which denied an expansion in 2001, did not second a motion to reconsider the request.
“I think what we saw last night is people making a difference. You don’t see this every day,” said Diane Conklin, spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Road Alliance.
Resident Richard Zelmer said he thought the planning group was overwhelmed by the number of people attending the meeting.
“This was a sign of democracy in action at the local level,” said Zelmer.
Conklin estimated there were 125 people at the meeting, although some were attending for other agenda items. Residents lined the walls of the community center meeting room while some had to remain in the hallway. A few carried signs opposing the expansion of the camp.
When it came time to address the Salvation Army camp issue, Dennis Sprong, who as group vice chairman was the acting chair in Chris Anderson’s absence, announced: “Before we’re able to dive into this, we need a majority vote for reconsideration by this group.”
As the group sat silent, Sprong repeated his statement. Member Chad Anderson then made a motion to reconsider the project, but no one seconded the motion.
“The motion has no second and it died on the floor,” Sprong said, followed by loud applause and cheering among the residents.
After the meeting Sprong explained that the RCPG secretary and chair had met with county officials and it came to light that a reconsideration vote would be required due to the RCPG’s denial of the expansion in 2001. At that time, RCPG members felt the retreat and camp would be too large for the existing rural neighborhood and it would pose fire dangers.
A major use permit (MUP) modification is required for the camp’s proposed 20-year-phased expansion, which would increase capacity from 200 to 615 people, and total square-footage of facilities from 33,750 to 190,750. The project is on approximately 575 acres on the western side of Mussey Grade, south of Highway 67 and north of the San Vicente Reservoir.
Matthew Peterson, of Peterson and Price, the attorney representing Salvation Army, said he wasn’t surprised at last Thursday’s outcome after he saw the agenda that evening which stated a formal reconsideration vote would be required.
“I was a little bit disappointed in the group as a whole,” Peterson said of the RCPG.
At the RCPG’s January meeting a lot of members seemed interested in the project, he said, but wanted to see the final fire protection plan and environmental impact report (EIR). He said the fire protection plan has been approved by the local fire marshal and the San Diego County Fire marshal and the EIR is finished and is being re-circulated for public review.
Peterson added that he and Salvation Army representatives went back to the planning group only because they were directed by the county. He said his client has spent an additional $6,000 to $7,000 by complying with requests for documents and presentations.
In the end, Salvation Army does not necessarily need the RCPG’s approval, as the group is advisory and the final determination will be made by the San Diego County Planning Commission. The planning commission will consider the proposed expanded MUP at its March 19 meeting.
Conklin said opponents will be ready for that meeting by keeping the people informed and keeping the momentum going.
“I hope the planning commission will hear us and, if not, we will appeal to the board of supervisors,” she said.
Saying it will be essential for residents to attend the planning commission meeting, Zelmer commented, “We don’t have their (Salvation Army) money. We have to show people power.”
Both sides believe there is misrepresentation about the project, which has been revised over the years, after first being denied by the RCPG in 1999.
Mussey Grade Road residents say they fear the expansion, which includes a conference center, will become a commercial enterprise and will clog the road with cars, buses and trucks.
Peterson said the residents were handing out flyers at Mussey Grade Road and Highway 67 prior to the planning group meeting with information that was deceptive about the project. He said the proposed conference center, which will have a maximum overnight capacity of 175 people, was being compared to the Barona Casino hotel.
A major concern of residents is the issue of evacuation should a wildfire occur. They know what can happen when a wildfire comes their way as the 2003 Cedar fire destroyed two-thirds of the houses along Mussey Grade Road. In 2007, the Witch Creek fire again threatened the area.
As Mussey Grade is a very winding road that dead-ends above the San Vicente Reservoir, the only outlet is Highway 67. Because of topography, sensitive biological resources and land use policies, Salvation Army has said a secondary access road to the camp is infeasible.
Addressing the fire concerns, the Salvation Army has included in its plans a 650,000-gallon water tank and a “Shelter in Place” facility that would house up to 1,300 people in the event people cannot evacuate in time.
Zelmer said shelter in place has not been proven to be safe. He said Salvation Army has a good reputation, but he believes that, by tripling the size of their camp, they are asking for a lot more rights than their neighbors and they haven’t shown the benefit to the public.