San Diego County Planning Commission OKs Salvation Army expansion project

   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.

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