By Joe Naiman
San Diego County Board of Supervisors heard public testimony March 14 on the proposed expansion of the Highland Valley Ranch group care facility for adults with traumatic brain injuries, but a letter challenging the adequacy of the project’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance wasn’t received by the county until March 12. As a result, the supervisors continued their discussion until March 28 to allow time to analyze the letter.
The unanimous vote for the continuance also included a directive to county staff to return to the supervisors with responses to issues raised during the public comment session including information on potential groundwater contamination and stormwater runoff, additional details on the cost to connect to the Ramona Municipal Water District sewer system, whether the facility is in compliance with its original major use permit, whether all alternatives have been evaluated, and whether a registered sex offender has ever been among the facility’s residents.
“I think we’ll have all the information on the table,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Although the supervisors are required to allow public testimony to address new information, they have the right to preclude testimony on previous issues. The supervisors also have the right to close the public record, which does not prevent members of the public from contacting individual supervisors about their concerns but does ensure that no further documents will go into the public record and prevents the possibility of another delay due to a last-minute claim.
Highland Valley Ranch is on a 25-acre site comprised of three contiguous lots with A70 limited agriculture zoning. The current major use permit, issued in October 1987, allows for 13 medically stable persons, eight non-resident staff, and the existing structures which total 13,040 square feet.
The proposed change would increase the site’s maximums to 52 residents and 25 staff members and would construct five new buildings totaling 23,252 square feet. A new entry gate, additional parking, and relocation of the main driveway access are also included in the proposal. The expansion would be conducted in three phases over 10 years.
The permit modification was approved July 22, 2011, by a 7-0 vote of the county’s Planning Commission. On Aug. 5, the Ramona Community Planning Group voted 10-0 to appeal that decision to the supervisors.
The commission placed conditions on the permit modification including annual meetings with neighbors and elimination of publicity that the facility will accept clients who are verbally or physically aggressive. Commissioners also made findings to allow an on-site wastewater treatment plant rather than connection to the water district, although the conditions include connection to the water district if the public agency ever provides sewer service to the area.
“We came to understand the good work of this facility and also the various concerns of the neighborhood,” Commissioner David Pallinger told the county supervisors.
The commission also approved the environmental Mitigated Negative Declaration. “In order to approve that we have to show substantial evidence on the record to support the findings,” said chief deputy county counsel Claudia Anzures.
The letter from the Highland Valley Road Alliance challenging CEQA compliance requires the county’s response to the comments.
“It’s unfortunate that CEQA allows this kind of action to occur so late,” Anzures said.
Three members of Ramona’s planning group addressed their concerns to the county supervisors.
“Package treatment plants should be used only in extreme cases,” said planning group Chair Jim Piva. “We believe this will be precedent-setting. I think we’re opening Pandora’s box and I’m concerned we’re going to get hit up with a lot more of these package treatment plants.”
County staff recommended rejection of the on-site treatment plant in favor of connection to the sewer system, which has an estimated $2 million cost. A 1.3-mile extension of the sewer line would also disrupt approximately 6,700 feet of local roadway during construction. Local Agency Formation Commission approval would be required to give the Ramona water district latent powers to provide sewer service to the area.
Piva said that the community character contrast will eliminate the current harmony between residents and the facility.
“If the permit is granted, you will establish an extremely adversarial condition in the neighborhood,” he said.
“People should have some security in the zoning of the area they purchased land in,” said planning group member and secretary Kristi Mansolf. “If a package treatment plant is needed to expand, then maybe the expansion is too intense for the area.”
Planning group member Dennis Sprong hopes that the county will at least consider mitigation measures if it approves the project.
“I think there is a significant safety increase by adding that turn pocket,” he said, adding that the gate should be set back so that the largest vehicle entering or existing would not block Highland Valley Road.
The proposed 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 would also be dedicated.
The additional buildings would create a 3.3 percent lot coverage, which is consistent with large rural lots.
Project consultant James Greco told the supervisors that, if three large homes were built on the property, the lot coverage could be between 25,000 and 30,000 square feet.
Greco said that the Mount Woodson development originally had a package treatment plant but annexed to the Ramona water district when sewer service became available.
“We are pleased to do that as well if it becomes feasible,” Greco said.
The age of the current Highland Valley Ranch residents ranges from 19 to 72, with the average age 48.
“Everybody needs somewhere to be, someone to live, and something to do,” said chief executive officer and founder Kevin O’Connor. “My clients are people who are trying to regain some sense of normal life.”
O’Connor said that the recent war has led to an increase in traumatic brain injuries.
“The brain-damaged are growing and living longer, and there is a tremendous need for programs such as ours,” he said.
Scott Bailey was a junior on the El Segundo High School football team in 1969 when he was injured making a tackle. “I’m just so thankful that I’ve got a place,” he said of Highland Valley Ranch.
Highland Valley Road resident Ruth Barnett is concerned that runoff will eventually flow to Lake Hodges.
“This is way too intense an expansion,” she said.
Sandee Salvatore, also a Highland Valley Road resident, told the supervisors that additional facilities should be built closer to services in town.
Mr. O’Connor builds his facility,” she said. “There are large lots for sale that Mr. O’Connor could move his facility to.”
Salvatore noted the rural nature of the Hidden Valley area.
“I like to see the moon and the stars,” she said. “I don’t want to be invaded by a lighted parking lot.”
The Salvatores use well water and also fear contamination of that source.
“Our water tests better than the water district,” said Jim Salvatore.
Jim Salvatore built convalescent facilities before his retirement.
“All my facilities were in commercial areas next to medical facilities,” he said. “This is not the proper area for that.”
Jack Allen and his wife purchased their Highland Valley Road property in 1974.
“We want the integrity of our community saved,” he said.
“It’s not a residence. It’s a residential facility,” said Highland Valley Road resident Lisa LeFors. “The scope is beyond the caring use of the land.”
Nancy Goodman noted that the gymnasium would be 6,500 square feet while a two-story residence built on the site would be limited to 5,000 square feet. Goodman also noted the inability to access Highland Valley Road during the October 2007 Witch Fire.
“Evacuating them when the next fire comes through would be a disaster,” she said.