VALLEY CENTER — A hotly contested proposal to build more than 1,700 homes near Valley Center in semirural North County got a boost last week when county planners recommended the project be approved.
The decision thrilled developer The Accretive Group, but baffled and outraged opponents who argue that the Lilac Hills Ranch project violates guidelines for smart growth laid out in the county’s hard-fought General Plan Update.
The recommendation came roughly a week before the county Planning Commission will hold its first public hearing on Lilac Hills Ranch — the largest project to come before the panel in years.
Steve Hutchison — a member of the Valley Center Planning Group, which is staunchly against the proposal — said he’s struggling to condense his remarks to the eight minutes he’ll be allowed at Friday’s hearing.
“There is so much to address on this project,” he said, citing the “significant and irreversible changes (it will make) to community character, going from rural to urban.”
The mixed-use pedestrian oriented housing development would be built on 608 acres south of West Lilac Road and about a half-mile east of Interstate 15, in an area that stretches into Valley Center and Bonsall. Planning groups in both communities have overwhelmingly opposed the development, as have several environmental and slow-growth groups.
Accretive CEO Randy Goodson says Lilac Hills Ranch will provide much-needed energy-efficient housing in an area easily accessible to Interstate 15.
After five years of review, and roughly 3,500 public comments, the county planning staff released a recommendation Tuesday that the project be approved, albeit with numerous conditions.
The Planning Commission hearings that begin Friday will likely extend into September, with the commissioners already tentatively set to tour the property on Aug. 12. Whatever the panel decides will then be forwarded as a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which will make the final decision on the project later this year.
Lilac Hills Ranch is considered pivotal to both builders and environmentalists because it’s the first of several developments planned in rural and semirural San Diego County seeking amendments to the General Plan Update. The document — completed in 2011 after years of costly review — is a guide for the future of development in the unincorporated county for the next 30 years.
Two other large North County housing projects will come before the commission and supervisors in the next couple years and a dozen smaller ones have also begun the county planning process.
Opponents view Lilac Hills as the first real test of the revised General Plan. The plan recognizes the need for more housing in the county, but calls for large “smart growth” developments to be built near existing infrastructure such as freeways, mass transit, police and fire protection, water and sewer and schools. It calls for rural areas to remain open for agriculture, far less dense housing, and protection of sensitive habitats.
“If Lilac Hills is approved, it will set a precedent for future approval of thousands of homes built on agricultural land or natural habitat, the epitome of ‘dumb growth,’” said Lael Montgomery, a Valley Center resident and outspoken critic of the project.
The planning staff’s recommendation “has broken my heart,” she said.
Goodson — whose company is best known for its San Elijo Hills development in southern San Marcos — is of course pleased with the recommendation and is predicting the project will be approved by the commissioners and the supervisors, perhaps unanimously.
“…It’s the best designed project and the most thought-out project that has come before them in many, many years in a great location next to the I-15,” Goodson said. “Their staff has reviewed the project for five years and asked every possible question. The community members and stakeholders have asked every possible question. All of them have been answered and they have resulted in a recommendation for approval from county staff.”
If Lilac Hills Ranch moves forward, construction would take place in phases over the next 10 years. The project would eventually include 903 single-family homes, 468 age restricted senior homes, 164 condominiums and 211 mixed-use units (residential built atop commercial).
There would also be 90,000 square feet of commercial space, a 50-room Country Inn, a 200-bed group care facility, and a senior recreation center, as well as a school site and possibly a fire station. Lilac Hills Ranch would also feature 25-acres of public and private parks, 16-miles of multiuse trails, a waste recycling facility and a water recycling facility.
Even the staunchest opponents agree that the project would be a winner if it were located somewhere else.
Goodson said he hopes the community will recognize Lilac Hills Ranch has to offer.
“I think sometimes people just get caught up in the fight and haven’t really stepped back and looked at the merits of our plan,” he added. “If they did they would see that our plan accommodates all of their goals — compact development, walkable, very low energy use, the lowest water use in the state.”
Several groups have thrown their support behind the project including Save the Bonsall Golf Course, a grass-roots organization boasting hundreds of members that formed last year to fight the closure of the San Luis Rey Downs golf course. The group sent a letter to the Planning Commission last week, urging it to approve the development:
“Lilac Hills Ranch is a smart plan that will contribute to the community, rather than detract from it. The project preserves the area’s unique contours by limiting grading to preserve steep slopes, thus retaining the distinctive characteristics that have made Bonsall and its neighboring towns a stunning place to live. We are also excited about the new opportunities for employment Lilac Hills Ranch will create for local residents and the positive impact the project will have on our economy. This area of San Diego County needs jobs, and Lilac Hills Ranch is a smart plan for creating them.”
The Planning Commission hearing will begin at 9 a.m. Friday in the COC Conference Center Hearing Room, 5520 Overland Avenue in San Diego.