By Joe Naiman
Despite opposing arguments from District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob, San Diego County Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote approved the expansion of Highland Valley Ranch for adults with traumatic brain injuries. The center is in Jacob’s district.
Joining Jacob in opposition was Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. Supervisors Greg Cox, Ron Roberts, and Bill Horn supported the expansion.
“Everything I’ve heard indicates that the operation of this facility has been very successful,” Cox said.
The county Planning Commission voted 7-0 July 22 to approve the permit change, but on Aug. 5 Ramona Community Planning Group voted 10-0 to appeal that decision to the supervisors. The commission placed conditions on the expansion including annual meetings with neighbors and elimination of publicity that the group care center will accept clients who are verbally or physically aggressive. The commission also made findings to allow an on-site wastewater treatment plant rather than connection to the water district’s sewer system, although connection to the district would be allowed if the public agency ever provides sewer service to the area.
The supervisors’ initial hearing was on March 14, but a letter challenging the adequacy of the project’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance received March 12 resulted in a continuance until March 28 to analyze the letter. That also gave county staff time to research claims of the March 14 public speakers.
Highland Valley Ranch is on 25 acres with A70 limited agriculture zoning. It opened in 1986 with six residents, a number that does not require a use permit. In 1987, the county approved a major use permit to allow 16 residents with eight non-resident staff members. Kevin O’Connor has owned and operated Highland Valley Ranch since 1991. The center currently has 13 residents. No violations of the permit are on file with the county.
Neighbors expressed opposition to a lighted parking lot during the March 14 hearing, but no parking lot lighting had been proposed, said county staff. Responding to concerns that a sex offender lived at Highland Valley Ranch, county staff reported that no sex offender has ever been at the center but the claim involves one of O’Connor’s other facilities.
Residents are allowed to leave if they wish, and the county supervisors placed no restrictions on that.
“These are not prisoners,” said Horn. “They’re not on probation. They just happened to have a damaged cranium that requires they have help.”
Staff research noted that four detention basins will limit runoff, sight distance from the driveway in both directions meets county standards, the traffic model statistic of 156 average daily trips includes current as well as future use, neither of the two reported vehicle accidents (both solo-vehicle accidents) in the past five years were related to the driveway, the Ramona Municipal Water District has a sewer availability letter on file, and the cost to connect to the existing sewer line is between $1.25 million and $2.2 million.
No wells are within 100 feet of the property line. O’Connor agreed to add a reverse osmosis system to the treatment plant to prevent pharmaceuticals from contaminating groundwater resources, and that was added to the permit’s conditions.
Chief Deputy County Counsel Claudia Anzures noted that previous correspondence from opponents included a recommendation for a reverse osmosis system, so the late decision to add such a system does not violate CEQA.
“I believe they’ve had an opportunity to note any objections,” she said.
Added conditions also included adherence to a business plan that will ensure that no sex offenders are housed at the center.
The approved expansion increases the site’s maximums to 52 residents and 25 staff members and allows five new buildings totaling 23,252 square feet along with a new entry gate, additional parking, and relocation of the main driveway access. The expansion will be done in three phases over 10 years.
The additional buildings will create a 3.3 percent lot coverage, an increase from the current 1.2 percent coverage. The added coverage is consistent with large rural lots but not in the neighborhood, where the surrounding parcels have an average lot coverage of 0.71 percent.
“We do have findings that we must make,” Jacob said. “The proposed project is over four to five times the lot coverage of surrounding properties.”
Jacob also noted that the facility is about three miles outside the village line for purposes of planning.
“This use is not in harmony with the low-populated density in the surrounding area,” she said. “Such an increase in use is out of character in the quiet community.”
Jacob also noted that the county’s general plan update precludes sewer service beyond the village boundary line unless health and safety considerations merit conversion of a septic system.
“That in and of itself tells me that this project can’t be approved by this board,” she said. “The individual septic system that is there is not failing.”
Jacob noted that the addition would create a total of seven structures.
“That is our legal responsibility to make these findings,” Jacob said. “The project does not support the findings that are required.”
Slater-Price agreed that a different location would be preferable.
“I think it’s too big for where it’s being proposed,” she said.
Horn’s district has seen permitting for the TERI home for the mentally disabled, the Casa de Amparo battered women’s shelter, an animal rescue facility, and two facilities for AIDS patients.
“They’re good neighbors,” Horn said.
The permit conditions include improving Highland Valley Road to a graded width of 35 feet from the centerline and an improved width of 25 feet and to grant a road easement for a 35-foot width from the centerline. A 10-foot wide trail along Highland Valley Road will also be dedicated.