Roads, winery rules, health care are topics at coffee

   Playing to a packed house—or museum, in actuality—District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob shared coffee and information with her constituents on at the Guy B. Woodward Museum on Feb. 25.  All were welcomed and invited to share ideas, problems or concerns with the supervisor and her staff.

   The supervisor began by giving an update on what was proposed and accomplished during 2009, starting with the topic of making Ramona a better place to live with the Grasslands project. Allocating nearly $500,000 to the Oak Country II trails project, four miles of the trail will be completed this summer.  The supervisor lauded the tremendous support from the community for the Grasslands project, stating that, “It is a delicate balance between trails use and protection of sensitive species,” but the end result will be the opportunity for eco-tourism in the community, building upon the nationwide draw of HawkWatch and other trails.

   Saying that, “Like everyone else I am fed up with finances,” Jacob added that, since the financial situation at the federal level trickles down to the local level, there are two things everyone should keep an eye on with the health care reforms being debated. 

   One is the lack of any mention in any health care reform proposals about tort reform, a group of ideas designed to change the way the civil justice system works.  While each tort reform law is different, all are designed to either limit the circumstances under which injured people may sue, limit how much money juries may award to injured people, or both, said Jacob.  In the context of health care reform, she referred to a conversation with her own physician, who stated that 50 percent of the cost of her recent hip replacement surgery was “directly attributable to liability insurance.” These are the policies that had to be carried by the manufacturer of the prosthesis, the hospital, and the doctors, she said.

   Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) are the second thing to watch out for, said Jacob. These are tax-advantaged medical savings accounts available to taxpayers who are enrolled in a high deductible health plan. HSAs are not as widely used as they could be by taxpayers, but offer the opportunity to pay for medical costs with pre-tax dollars. These funds roll over from year-to-year if not spent, and are owned by the individual as opposed to employer plans, which are not.

   Moving on to San Diego Gas & Electric and what she called the successful blocking of the utility’s ill-advised power shutoff proposal, the California Public Utility Commission required that a stakeholder group be assembled to study viable options to reduce fire risks.  “These have been long painful sessions,” she said, with more than 30 groups being represented. The next meeting will be March 5 at 10 a.m. in the Four Points Sheraton, 8110 Aero Drive, San Diego.

   Continuing on the subject of power, Jacob said the California First Financing for Renewable and Solar Technology is moving forward. This is a program designed to encourage more property owners to borrow money from an energy financing district for the installation of solar photovoltaic electric systems. Part of the program would involve rolling over credits for excess energy production from month to month, but with a provision to refund at year end to the homeowner the excess, “at a fair and reasonable price” as determined by the PUC. Two items to be ironed out are the interest rate the homeowner would be charged, and what the “fair and equitable” price would be. 

   Some other good news is for residents of the unincorporated area of the county, said Jacob. Under the County’s Green Building Incentive program, permit fees are waived for installation of solar equipment.

   Jacob reported that the proposed Winery Ordinance will go to the San Diego County Planning Commission by April or May and is expected to be in the hands of the supervisors before the end of the summer.  The main intent of the ordinance is to remove the stumbling blocks to allow retail sales and wine tasting at the smallest of wineries that produce 12,000 gallons or less, which is the capacity of nearly all the current wineries in the county.  When a local, small boutique winery opened a tasting room 14 years ago, it cost $7,000 in fees.  One that opened two years ago was charged $250,000.

   There would still be a discretionary Administrative Use Permit required for wineries producing 12,000 to 120,000 gallons and a Major Use Permit for those producing over 120,000 gallons.  A recent survey of bonded wineries in the county reveals that there are nearly 60, but only 16 have retail tasting rooms.  The supervisor emphasized the significant economic drive the winery industry presents, from the agri-tourism components of bed and breakfasts and farm-stays to downtown vitality opportunities that come with winery tourists such as bistros, gift shops and other related shopping opportunities. 

   As a result of the supervisor’s previous coffee with Ramona constituents, a Highway 67 citizens group was formed, and members have determined that placing center line barriers are not the solution to safety in the corridor.  Several options are being discussed, all expensive, all with controversy and none scheduled to happen quickly—in fact it is “years away,” said the supervisor. 

   Discussion surrounding improvements to the Dye Road and Highway 67 intersection revealed that even that carries a price tag in the millions of dollars. Caltrans engineers say that widening that intersection to create a better traffic flow, would “greatly improve the flow of traffic.” U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter has agreed to submit a funding request for $7 million to $8 million, and added funds from transportation impact fees and CalTrans could cover the cost of improving that intersection, but even that would take at least two years, said Jacob.

   All agreed with a comment made by one audience member that, “the main problem with Highway 67 is the people who drive it,” referring to accidents caused by distracted drivers crossing the centerline.

   Other topics touched on briefly were funding requests for Ramona Town Hall so it can be opened for use, Village Design matching funds to finish the plans and the status of the new library. 

   After introductions by everyone in attendance, Ramonans began dialogue with the supervisor, ranging from praise for current safety measures being employed in the Highway 67 corridor to criticism of the circulation element priorities set by the Ramona Community Planning Group. A group wearing T-shirts reading, “Enough already save our Ramona environment,” were vocal in their disapproval of the proposed extension of Dye Road and Ramona Street. 

   Carl Hickman, a traffic engineer by profession, and members of the planning group said one of the major problems in Ramona concerning correcting its circulation elements has been that newly seated planning group members over the years have taken the Top 10 priorities list submitted to the county and changed it.  County staff would begin work on planning, design and financing of the top elements of the list, getting them nearly shovel-ready, only to stop a year or two later because the planning group would re-order the list. 

   A smart management decision was made by the group in recent years to stick with the list, and get something completed in Ramona, they said. 

   
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