By Karen Brainarf
Ramona Community Planning Group (RCPG) members rejected the proposed expansion of a rehabilitative center on Highland Valley Road for brain-injured victims after hearing from residents who opposed the project and voiced complaints.
Before the vote was taken at their July 7 meeting, planning group members said that they are only an advisory group and their recommendations have been overridden by the county in the past. The project has received a recommendation to approve from the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) and will go before the county Planning Commission on July 22.
Hidden Valley Ranch, often referred to as Highland Valley Ranch, is owned by Kevin O’Connor. The ranch is a long-term rehabilitative center for adults with traumatic brain injuries and provides therapeutic and recreational treatment alternatives.
O’Connor is seeking a major use permit modification to expand his care facility from 13 residents to 52 residents on his 25 acres of land.
Patrick Brown from DPLU told the planning group that the proposal includes the addition of three one-story homes and a physical therapy building. The new buildings will total about 23,000 square feet.
The planning group denied the project once before, but Brown said the proposal contained a number of changes, one of those being sewer service. Originally the plan included a package treatment plant, which DPLU does not support, said Brown. The new plans call for the center to abandon its septic tank and hook to the Ramona Municipal Water District. The sewer service area would have to be expanded to allow for the extension of a sewer line, he said.
Brown said neighbors of the area were concerned about a jump to 52 patients, so O’Connor has proposed the expansion over a 10-year period and the county will perform inspections between each phase.
Another concern from the public review, Brown said, was that there were “walkabouts”—people wandering off the property.
“I personally did extensive research on the issue. I checked with the community care licensing division and looked at the file and I found no incidence of walkabouts, no incidence of any kind on the facility,” said Brown, which drew an outburst from the audience.
Brown said the Sheriff’s Department did an extensive 10-year research and found no trespassing calls from nearby residents.
Neighbors of the area had their turn to speak. Jim Salvatore said he once took a patient back but never filed a complaint. Salvatore said he has dealt with the county for 50 years.
“The county has overridden this board several times. The county is after money. That’s all they want, is the taxes and the money,” he said.
Salvatore added that the area is not zoned for this type of project, as it is a residential agriculture zone.
Jack Allen said he has lived on Highland Valley Road since 1970. The treatment center began as a limited operation and the county said it would not be expanded, said Allen.
“I’m not against the people. They’ve got to be somewhere. It’s just not fair to the people who live there,” he said.
Melody Mitchell said she was new to the area and wasn’t aware of the closeness of the rehabilitative center until a man who was bleeding walked down her driveway.
“I was terrified,” she said.
Mitchell said she called 911 and the patient was picked up. She added that she fears for her and her children’s safety.
Lisa LeFors said one of the patients walked onto her property and into her garage. “Thank goodness I locked the front door because he tried to get in,” she said.
Chris Brown, a consultant working with O’Connor, said Hidden Valley is not a lock-down facility but O’Connor has stringent requirements. He added that O’Connor has indicated he has no plans to go beyond 52 patients.
“This is about having these beds available for veterans, for firemen, for individuals who need this care,” said Chris Brown. “There’s roughly 400 beds for people like this in the whole state of California.”
Chris Brown said O’Connor has been trying to do the best he can to operate this facility and has tried to address the neighbors’ concerns.
He said there is a reason for this location.
“This isn’t institutionalized care, this isn’t a convalescent hospital. This is a residential care facility that needs to take place in a calm residential area,” explained Chris Brown.
When planning group members had their turn to talk, Chad Anderson said Chris Brown makes projects happen and Patrick Brown is a county employee who was probably told to be at the meeting. Anderson noted that the RCPG is an advisory board that denied the project a couple of years ago, but the county can override it. He questioned the motives behind the project and said the sewer extension alone would be extremely expensive.
“There’s more going on than this Kevin adding to the project, in my eyes,” said Anderson.
When Chris Anderson mentioned that the Ramona water district has indicated that the sewer plant for that area is at capacity, Patrick Brown said the water district signed a service availability form.
Other planning group members expressed doubts about the project and the accuracy of the plans as conveyed.
Dennis Sprong noted that Hidden Valley Ranch offers noble work that is needed, but he added that he is against the project because of its scope in the neighborhood.
Paul Stykel said the Planning Commission will probably approve the project and suggested the RCPG work with the county so it will have some say and not get something “pushed down our throats anyway.”
RCPG Chair Jim Piva agreed with Stykel and said the neighbors could have the opportunity to have some of their issues mitigated.
Piva said he understands how neighbors could be scared, but said of the patients, “They’re scared, too. These people…it’s not their fault.”
O’Connor spoke up, saying, in his 20 years at the treatment center, there have been no formal complaints or arrests. The patients are not criminals or thieves, he said.
“They are normal people who had the misfortune to acquire a brain injury,” he said. “They live there because they have safety issues. The community is not at risk.”
The recommendation to deny because of the project’s intensity, non-conformity of neighborhood character, commercial use in an ag/residential zone and sewer concerns, passed by nine votes. Voting to deny were Chad Anderson, Chris Anderson, Matt Deskovick, Carl Hickman, Kristi Mansolf, Bob Hailey, Richard Tomlinson, Kevin Wallace and Sprong. Piva and Stykel voted against the denial. Scotty Ensign recused himself, Eb Hogervorst abstained, and Angus Tobiason and Torry Brean were absent.
The planning group decided to send at least one member to the commission meeting and will consider an appeal if the project is approved.
The Planning Commission will meet at 9 a.m. on Friday, July 22, in the DPLU Hearing Room, 5201 Ruffin Road, Suite B, San Diego.