San Diego County Planning Commission voted to approve a major use permit modification to allow expansion of the Salvation Army’s Wildwood Ranch off Mussey Grade Road.
Ramona Community Planning Group is expected to appeal the decision to the county board of supervisors.
The planning commission voted 4-2 in favor of the permit change during its March 19 meeting. Commissioners Leon Brooks, Adam Day, Peder Norby and David Pallinger voted in favor of the permit, Michael Beck and John Riess voted in opposition, and Bryan Woods left the meeting prior to its 3 p.m. conclusion.
Some debate focused on community character, but fire evacuation issues dominated the discussion. Although county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff recommended approval in part due to the acceptance of fire plans by public-agency professional experts, the planning commission accepted Norby’s amendment requiring the Salvation Army to have enough bus capacity to evacuate all residents at once between September and November, when fire risk is highest.
“The ready set go is the central issue,” Pallinger said of the evacuation plan.
“Would I send my kids or my grandkids to this camp and feel they were in safe hands?” said Pallinger, whose grandchildren are 6 and 5 years old. “I’m confident that they could get out of there.”
Ramona planning group representative Kristi Mansolf indicated that the group would appeal the decision.
“There’s no guarantee the proposed shelter-in-place plan will be effective,” Mansolf said during the hearing. “Dead-end roads are currently cause for some development projects to be denied here in San Diego County.”
The camp was originally operated by First Presbyterian Church and originally received a special use permit, the predecessor to a major use permit, in 1970. The Salvation Army purchased the property in 1997.
The existing camp contains 23 buildings totaling 33,570 square feet on the 578-acre property in the 14400 block of Mussey Grade Road, and approximately 200 children occupy the camp during a typical summer week. The proposed expansion would take place over a 20-year period and would result in a total of 54 buildings totaling 207,620 square feet, and the site would have a maximum occupancy of 615 people.
During non-summer weekends, the facility is used as a retreat for Salvation Army groups and for other nonprofit groups that rent the facility.
One of the proposed new buildings is a multi-purpose structure totaling 16,700 square feet. That building would be constructed of fire-resistant materials and would be able to shelter up to 1,300 people during a wildfire, enabling Mussey Grade Road residents as well as camp occupants to utilize emergency shelter.
The building will have brush clearance of 175 feet to the northeast, 600 feet to the northwest, 400 feet to the southwest and more than 1,000 feet to the southeast.
A fire safety coordinator will be on site at all times, and, if a fire is heading toward Ramona and it is confirmed that at least three hours are available for relocation, the camp will be evacuated. If it is not certain that a fire would reach Mussey Grade Road within three hours, Mussey Grade Road conditions including traffic flow will determine whether evacuation or shelter-in-place will be used.
“This is not a stay-and-defend concept proposal by any means,” said Ralph Steinhoff, DPLU fire services coordinator .
Before Steinhoff joined DPLU in January of 2003, he worked for the North County Fire Protection District and had been the district’s fire marshal before becoming its deputy fire chief.
While many Mussey Grade Road residents cited the lack of fire service due to unsafe conditions in the October 2003 Cedar Fire, Steinhoff noted that the shelter area would also protect fire personnel and apparatus.
“If I have an area that I know is safe, I would commit equipment,” he said.
The conditions of the major use permit require fire drills to take place during the first day of a camp or retreat session, and Steinhoff compared those drills to lifeboat drills on a cruise ship.
The permit conditions include a 650,000-gallon water tank, which would be expandable to 800,000 gallons. The water tank, the shelter building, brush management and widening Mussey Grade Road along the site frontage must be completed prior to any other expansion.
“That Mussey Grade residential area is going to be much safer,” said attorney Matt Peterson, who represented the Salvation Army.
Day said that the fire plan was accepted not only by Steinhoff but also by the Ramona Municipal Water District, which is also responsible for fire protection.
“This will create a better, safer situation for the existing camp and existing homeowners,” Day said.
The entrance to the camp is approximately 1-1/2 miles from state Route 67. In March 2009 the planning commission denied a tentative parcel map for a proposed four-home subdivision in Pala due to the lack of an acceptable fire protection plan. Both state fire regulations and the county’s fire code limit dead-end access roads in areas with four-acre zoning to 1,320 feet from the first opportunity to evacuate in two directions — if lot size rather than zoning is used, the limit for a parcel exceeding 20 acres is 5,280 feet.
At the March 2009 hearing, DPLU Deputy Director Jeff Murphy noted that two key elements are required for a shelter-in-place plan: education and outreach to ensure that future residents are aware of such a plan, and enforcement for clearing brush to ensure a safe area. The county’s Consolidated Fire Code allows local fire code officials to grant a modification to the dead-end length requirements if mitigating factors are present.
In January 2010 the planning commission denied a request to subdivide another Pala parcel into 30 residential lots, in part due to the lack of mitigation measures for a dead-end road segment significantly exceeding the code limits and in part due to the travel time from the nearest fire station.
“I am not willing to allow children and other people to use this as an experiment,” said Ramona’s Carol Angus.
The facility would be rented only to groups, not to individuals, which increases the likelihood that weekend users will arrive and depart by bus or van rather than by individual automobiles, said expansion proponents.
Traffic studies indicate that the expansion would increase average daily trips to and from the site from 140 to 200, including an increase of from 12 to 17 trips during evening peak hours. Because arrival times are not during morning peak hours, no change in the 10 morning peak average trips per day is anticipated.
Peterson noted that the nonresidential component would produce quicker evacuations.
“They’re not bringing photo albums. They’re not bringing horses,” he said. “They jump on the buses and they’re gone.”
Evacuation to the United Methodist Church is a 6.2-mile round trip, which is likely to be completed within 25 minutes, so the fire plan outside of the high-risk months allows for multiple evacuation trips, according to proponents.
“Fires don’t punch the clock,” said Ramona resident and fire specialist Joseph Mitchell, who spoke against the expansion. “We can’t quite predict when the fires are going to arrive.”
If retreat occupants panic and leave in their own cars, it could impact other Mussey Grade Road evacuation efforts, said Mitchell.
“This plan is experimental,” he said. “It would put Mussey Grade residents at risk of injury and death.”
The permit conditions require annual fire marshal inspections to ensure that the camp is in compliance with the fire plan.
“At any time he could not allow this camp to open,” said David Sibbet, DPLU planner.
Sibbet also noted that shelter-in-place in lieu of evacuation has been used in Crosby Estates and Rancho Cielo Estates in Rancho Santa Fe and at the Barona and Viejas casinos.
Shelter-in-place was also used at the Westmont College gymnasium in Santa Barbara and the Pepperdine University library in Malibu.
A gate at the south end of Mussey Grade Road leads to terrain that was once part of the stagecoach route between San Diego and Julian but is no longer suitable for evacuation or emergency vehicle ingress.
Beck noted the scope of the project in his reasons for opposing the permit modification.
“In my view, it’s a very, very significant modification,” he said. “The scale of this is much different.”
Day countered that without the multi-purpose building the average building size would be approximately 3,000 square feet, comparable to the size of homes in the area. Norby noted that if residential lots were placed on the property with A70 agricultural zoning, 70 homes of approximately 3,000 square feet would create an approximately equal amount of floor space.
“This use compared to this estate lot use of 70 homes is consistent,” Norby said.