After listening to a presentation on the proposed expansion of the Salvation Army Camp and Retreat on Mussey Grade Road, followed by over a dozen residents speaking in opposition, the Ramona Community Planning Group (RCPG) voted to postpone a decision on the camp until certain documents are received for review.
The planning group voted Jan. 7 to schedule a special meeting before Jan. 22 to discuss the fire protection plan and final environmental impact report (EIR) regarding the site. Those documents were not available to the group members at their meeting. Information last week was that the San Diego County Planning Commission had scheduled a hearing for Jan. 22 on the expansion, but the county has since delayed the planning commissioners’ hearing until the document can be provided. Chris Anderson, planning group chair, said this week that the county will provide the document to Ramona planners before Jan. 28 so they can review the information before the group’s meeting on Feb. 4.
Matthew Peterson of Peterson and Price, the attorney representing Salvation Army, said he heard that the fire protection plan was being fine-tuned and the final EIR was almost completed. Although he noted that a fire protection summary was included in his prepared documents, Anderson said that is Peterson’s summary and she needed to see the actual fire protection plan. She said the planning group specifically requested the fire protection plan in 2008 but still hasn’t seen it.
“We need to see that,” said Anderson. “In my opinion, personally I can’t make a decision to vote in favor or against this, either way.”
The Salvation Army has been trying to expand the Sierra Del Mar Divisional Camp and Retreat for almost 11 years, during which time concerns by community agencies and area residents on such issues as fire hazards, density and traffic have caused the organization to revamp their plans.
In an effort to compromise with residents, Salvation Army has revised plans to include decreasing the maximum occupancy from 1,000 down to 615 with an alternative to further decrease it to 513, building a 650,000-gallon public water tank that would be expandable up to 800,000 gallons, and adding a “Shelter in Place” to accommodate 1,300 people in the event of a fire.
With fire safety a hot issue for residents along Mussey Grade Road, many of whom were victims in the Cedar fire in 2003 and the Witch fire in 2007, those speaking at the meeting said that a camp with several hundred people would impact their safety should another wildfire occur.
Louis Wolfsheimer, an attorney representing the McGuire family, which owns 300 acres of land abutting the Salvation Army site on the south, said 100 of the 190 homes burned in Ramona during the Cedar fire were on Mussey Grade. He said there are roughly 160 families on Mussey Grade Road who depend upon that road to get to Highway 67.
Wolfsheimer said that, when former Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) Board President Robert Krysak wrote a lengthy history of governmental failures during the 2003 fire, the remarks ended by saying everyone knows that Mussey Grade Road is “a tunnel of death.”
“His words, not mine,” Wolfsheimer said.
He added that Salvation Army has been told “no” on the project twice by the water board, unless there is a secondary access.
Salvation Army has deemed a secondary access road infeasible due to topography, sensitive biological resources and land use policies.
“I consider this application for the conference center in among the rural homes on Mussey Grade Road to be one of the most bizarre requests in my 40 years as a land use attorney,” Wolfsheimer said.
The proposed project area is a 575-acre site on the western side of Mussey Grade, south of Highway 67 and north of the San Vicente Reservoir.
Peterson, who specializes in real estate and land use law and has been involved with the project for 10 years, said that, although only 95 acres are required for mitigation, 395 acres will be dedicated to open space. Setting aside the land for open space will eliminate the possibility of subdividing the land for future development that could increase traffic, he said.
Peterson pointed out that Salvation Army has added an on-site 650,000-gallon public water tank, along with pipelines and hydrants, to surcharge existing lines down Mussey Grade Road, which would increase water flows and produce more water capacity for firefighters.
“I can guarantee you, you will not find a more fire-safe camp than what is proposed here, once everything is implemented,” Peterson said.
In his fire protection summary, Peterson stated that all structures (cabins, staff housing, maintenance facilities, dining facilities, multi-purpose building and retreat center) will be constructed to 2009 Consolidated Fire Code Standards; internal roadways will be improved for emergency access; and evacuation of the camp is the preferred alternative only when Mussey Grade Road conditions are safe.
“There’s going to be the capacity to house up to 1,300 people in a fire-protected building—a shelter in place—in the event Mussey Grade Road becomes blocked or the fire is upon the camp or the area more quickly,” said Peterson.
Shelter in place includes protective landscaping and is important for the community if residents are stuck on Mussey Grade and cannot get out during a fire, he said.
“Salvation Army has always opened its arms to help people and they would welcome the neighbors in that event or any event for that matter,” said Peterson.
John Jondall, who retired in 2007 as assistant fire chief in San Diego, spoke on behalf of the McGuire family, saying the camp site is located in a very high hazard area. He also said the shelter-in-place concept, which originated in Australia, is on indefinite hold in that country after a 2009 firestorm killed 173 people with two-thirds of the victims in their homes.
Jondall said people who use shelter in place must be prepared emotionally, physically and psychologically and it is not advisable for children.
Staying to defend the property is one thing, Jondall said, but being forced to stay because of inadequate exits is entirely different.
According to Peterson, reasons to approve the multi-year phased project are that he believes the Mussey Grade Road area will be safer, the owner of the camp property will donate $1 million in County transportation impact fees for road and transportation improvements, the owner will pay for a water tank at a cost of approximately $3 million and will contribute RMWD capital improvement fees estimated at almost $800,000, and children will be able to appreciate the beauty of the camp.
Because the project will require a major use permit (MUP) modification and the Salvation Army plans to rent the retreat center to adult groups, in addition to offering the children’s camp, residents were concerned the site would become more of a commercial enterprise than a religious retreat.
“The conference center is not for kids,” said Diane Conklin, spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Road Alliance. “It’s for people to come and rent, and they’re going to rent the majority of time and they’re going to rent to whoever they want.”
The planning group has voted against the project twice, in 1999 and 2001, Conklin said, suggesting that the planning group table the issue until the final EIR and fire protection plan are available.
After the residents spoke, planning group member Jim Piva said the group’s Trails and Transportation (T&T) Subcommittee had looked over everything that was presented, as well as the adjustments made and approved the project by a vote of 15-1.
Piva, chair of the T&T Subcommittee, said members felt all of Ramona face the same fire hazards and that Salvation Army has worked with the community and the county on this project.
“Salvation Army does a great job with children and what they’re proposing to do is to keep people on site and not throw 600 cars on the road,” Piva said.
As the planning group members one by one voiced their comments, some pointed out the benefits of having a 650,000-gallon water tank available.
Group member Matt Deskovick said he didn’t like the dedication of the additional 300-acre open space, which he believes would be a fire danger. Several other members also expressed this concern.
Anderson suggested that space be used for agriculture, either for grazing or for crops so it would not be fuel for a fire.
Group member Bob Hailey said that, although he feels the Salvation Army is a great organization, he must objectively consider the project for the community. He voiced concerns about the MUP, which stays with the land, regardless of the owner. He said there may come a time when Salvation Army will need to sell the property and a new owner could use it for commercial purposes. From that perspective, Hailey said, he would not approve the project.
Member Katherine L. Finley also said she was bothered with the MUP issue and feels the camp will be a rented out a lot in order for the organization recoup the money that has already been spent.