By Richard Zelmer
Most residents of Ramona don’t seem to be aware of the Salvation Army’s plans for its conference center on Mussey Grade Road. If they have heard of the project, they generally think that the Army just wants to expand a church camp to provide more camping and wilderness experience to underprivileged children. This is not the whole story!
Before the army purchased it, the facility had been used as a church camp that could accommodate about 150 people. About 11 years ago the army applied to expand the major use permit for this camp to accommodate about 1,000 people in 240,000 square feet of buildings. When the army presented its original plan to build this conference center, it was presented as an opportunity for underprivileged kids to enjoy the wonders of nature. When asked how much of its time would be dedicated to kids camping, the reply was about eight weeks a year. The rest of the time the facilities would be rented out to other groups, generating a lot of income for the army.
Basically this is a huge commercial venture second in size only, in terms of overnight accommodations in our area, to Barona Casino. It is totally out of character with Mussey Grade Road. Even more serious, though, this project endangers the residents of Mussey Grade Road and the potential users of this commercial convention center.
The traffic generated by the campers or conventioneers and by the facility’s commercial suppliers would make Mussey Grade even more of a death trap in a wildfire. Fire is hot! It burns! It kills!
If you wanted to put a huge conference center consisting of 240,000 square feet of buildings including five two-story motel-like structures totaling 57,000 square feet, a 21,000-square-foot dining facility (restaurant), and a 19,500-square-foot multipurpose room in the rugged, mountainous canyon of Mussey Grade Road, you probably wouldn’t say that directly. People would say, “You’re out of your mind. Mussey Grade is a box canyon with only one road in and is flanked by miles and miles of trees and heavy vegetation. It’s a tinder box that has been engulfed in three major fires in the past 20 years.”
You surely wouldn’t make this proposal after the Cedar Fire of 2003, where two-thirds of the homes along Mussey Grade Road south of Dos Picos Park Road (where the army’s convention center would be built) were burned down. You probably wouldn’t make the proposal after the Witch Fire of 2007, either, when a general evacuation of Ramona was ordered and traffic was backed up on Highway 67.
People in Ramona are still skittish about fire. People are frightened of future fire catastrophes. They are cautious about taking steps to protect themselves and wary of projects that increase the danger of wildfires. So, you’d sugarcoat the thing. Portray it a youth camp. Downplay its primary function as a commercial conference center.
Twice in past decade the Ramona Community Planning Group has wisely rejected this plan. Over time modifications were made and the size of the project was somewhat reduced, but the basic problems of fire safety and incompatibility with the community and the environment have not been dealt with. Fire code requires a secondary access road for projects more than 1,320 feet down a one-way road that crosses parcels zoned under five acres. The proposed facility is about three miles down such a road.
To get around the secondary access requirement, the army proposed a few years ago that campers or conventioneers “Shelter in Place” in specially prepared buildings at the facility. They cited use of this practice in Australia. The planning group and the county were not convinced and required them to produce a Final Environmental Impact Report including a revised Fire Protection Plan, to be approved by Ramona’s planners. It has taken more than 10 years for the army to comply with the law and produce the necessary documentation.
Now the army is back again. At last Thursday’s meeting of the Ramona Community Planning Group, the army presented their plan anew to the group. They hoped for a quick yes vote in advance of presenting their project for final approval at a meeting of the San Diego County Planning Commission. That meeting had been scheduled for Jan. 22, but has since been rescheduled. Although they were required to present a Final Environmental Impact Report including a revised Fire Protection Plan, they came without these things and asked the Ramona planning group to approve the plan anyway. The planners wisely put off a vote until the required documents are provided to them.
Again the project was presented as a Youth Camp. The full color cover of their presentation materials displayed a cross on a mountain surrounded by photos of smiling kids. No mention was made of the conference center. Under the cover sheet of the glossy materials passed out by the army, not much had changed. They now want the facility to accommodate about 615 people in about 229,600 square feet of buildings. To put your best foot forward is natural, but to characterize this project as a camp for disadvantaged youth is disingenuous.
Shelter in place is still the proposed method of dealing with fire, but the Australian experience has failed to support this. In recent fires in Australia, 179 people died while sheltering in place. Hotels out in the wildlands are still a bad idea, even if run by a religious organization with a great reputation for helping people in need. Sometimes your idealism can blind you to the facts. Sometimes the fact that you have spent a lot of time and money on a project can make it hard to give up, even if you now realize that it’s wrong.
I’m sure that the Salvation Army doesn’t want to endanger children, conventioneers, or the residents of Mussey Grade and Ramona. No matter how far you’ve walked in the wrong direction, you must eventually turn around.
Developers seem to use a standard method to attempt to get bad projects past the Ramona Community Planning Group. Here’s how it works.
First, you propose a preposterous project that in no way conforms to existing zoning, regulations, or planning and which is completely out of character with the community. Next, over a long period of time you gradually modify the project to remove the most egregious features. You may have to do this several times, all the while bemoaning how unfairly you have been treated and saying how cooperative you have been by making so many changes to the original project. After a lot of this behavior, you just might get a bad plan passed, especially if you finally present in a year when new members appear on the group who are not fully familiar with the project or who have a personal pro-development outlook.
Not being as bad as the original proposal does not make a bad plan into a good plan.
The planning group is scheduling a new meeting to consider the Salvation Army’s proposal. Wake up! Be there and at any future meetings dealing with this project, especially if you live along Mussey Grade Road. You still remember the Cedar fire of 2003, and the snails’ pace of traffic while trying to evacuate from the Witch fire in 2007. Add in a few hundred more cars and trucks trying to enter highway 67 from Mussey Grade Road. Good luck!
If you live in other parts of Ramona or nearby areas, your life and property is still being endangered by this project. Fire spreads quickly, and you’ll still need Highway 67 to flow freely for your safety. And, that many more inexperienced people in the backcountry along Mussey Grade Road could well be a new source of ignition.
This is not NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition to this project. This project shouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard in this fire prone region.
Let the Ramona Community Planning Group know that you oppose this project. Make sure new members understand what it really involves before they vote. Let the Salvation Army know that, although you respect their good work with the disadvantaged, this is not a viable plan.
Richard Zelmer is a Ramona resident.