Fuerte Drive is a winding road and crowded and dangerous

“Our planning board’s desire is to keep land parcels to one acre."

Damon Lane County Park, two miles east of the Mount Helix summit, serves more than local residents’ needs for a peaceful commune with nature. “The park was put there,” says Jack Phillips, chair of the local planning group for the incorporated area and a community leader for 25 years, “as a buffer between two types of density.” On the park’s south and east sides, Rancho San Diego along Jamacha Road is a crowded mixture of residential and business uses, while the region north and west of the park has retained its rural roots.

But according to the Valle de Oro Community Planning Group, a new development in the works north of the park would be the first step in destroying the community’s character. Fuerte Ranch Estates is the venture of Reynolds Communities, an El Cajon development company that has already completed several smaller projects in the area. The company wants to build 36 homes on a 27-acre parcel, the site of a former chicken ranch, at the southeast corner of Fuerte Drive and Damon Lane. The development would have an entrance on each street. The land is currently zoned for agricultural use, with a maximum of one dwelling unit allowed per two acres. To complicate matters, Fuerte Elementary School occupies the southwest corner of the intersection.

Final passage of Fuerte Ranch Estates would require a general plan amendment. “There is no benefit for the community,” Phillips tells me by phone. “The project has no reason except to help the developer buy a new yacht. And it is not normal for county planners to throw out the current general plan only for one developer.”

Let’s go south on Damon Lane, down the hill along the old chicken ranch, whose dilapidated sheds still stand, to the northwest entrance of Damon Lane County Park. My guide is Laura Dvorak, a resident of Rancho San Diego. We look at an aging chain-link fence separating the ranch from the park. Dvorak tells me a concrete-block fire wall would replace the fence if the new development goes in. The slope downhill from the sheds is bowed, leaving much of the ground sunken in a trough that collects water in rainy seasons. That water drains southward, as does a subterranean stream that emerges above ground in the middle of the park, eventually flowing into the Sweetwater River. Dvorak believes that any large-scale construction on the ranch would severely pollute the creek.

The developer plans to bring in fill dirt to create a “pad” on the ranch’s low spot. That would raise the level of the project’s houses so they would never flood. According to Dvorak, some residents on the west side of Damon Lane have complained they’d lose their view if the houses are built so high.

Dvorak loves Damon Lane County Park, and it’s easy to see why. Its wide trails run along open meadows and riparian woodlands, with abundant cottonwood trees. The park lies within a county Multiple Species Conservation Program subarea. Dvorak is able to name more than 60 animals she’s seen in the park, from swallowtail butterflies, ring-necked snakes, western diamondbacks, horned lizards, raccoons, and big brown bats to quail, blue herons, great horned owls, and American kestrels. She seems partial to raptors, which perch on high places around the whole area. From our vantage point, we can see a red-tailed hawk atop a telephone pole next to the chicken ranch’s main house. “He sits on top of that pole every day,” Dvorak tells me. “Once they start construction up there, he’ll disappear forever.” An early environmental document prepared for Fuerte Ranch Estates paid significant attention to potential damage to wildlife in the park. “But the wildlife issues have dropped out of the discussion lately,” says Dvorak.

By phone, I speak with Susan Brownlee, a member of the Valle de Oro Community Planning Group. I ask what happened to the discussion of the Fuerte Ranch project’s potential effects on wildlife. Brownlee tells me that Reynolds Communities convinced the County’s Department of Planning and Land Use that an environmental impact report was not necessary, that there wouldn’t be any significant impacts on wildlife. “The developer made the case in what’s called a ‘negative declaration.’ In that document, they did have to do some biology.”

To Brownlee, the one thing that most demands an environmental impact report is the traffic 36 new homes would foist onto Fuerte Elementary School’s quiet life across the street. When Brownlee’s children attended the school less than a decade ago, she served two terms as president of its Parent Teacher Association. “Fuerte Drive is a winding road and already crowded and dangerous,” she says. “There was a death down the street to the west about a year and a half ago. Those fifth-graders doing crossing-guard duty at the school have a tough job trying to control all the cars dropping students off and picking them up every day. Now add 12 trips per day per new home. In the developer’s traffic study, 432 new trips per day is not significant, but to me it is.

“Our planning board’s desire is to keep land parcels to one acre, and more if they’re on steep slopes,” says Brownlee. “That’s what happened in another subdivision a little to the north and east. At Fuerte Ranch Estates, you could probably build about 13 homes, given that some of the land has to be used for access streets and other things.

“I disagree with the county planners’ approach to general plan amendments. Those should be very difficult to come by and only be granted when there are extenuating circumstances. Homeowners should be able to rely on a general plan to afford them protection from unforeseen violations of the community character. And why do the planners want us to develop like Los Angeles anyway? One of the great things about San Diego is that there are some places with high density, where it’s appropriate, and others where things are more spread out.”

What would a completed Fuerte Ranch Estates portend? Planning group chair Jack Phillips worries that the development is “likely to transform the whole area. Currently there is no sewer in the chicken ranch’s vicinity; all the houses are on septic. The developer tells us septic won’t be possible in Fuerte Ranch Estates, even though five houses on the property now have it. So this cookie-cutter subdivision has to annex a sewer district.”

According to Phillips, the current general plan forbids the Spring Valley Sanitation District from putting sewer lines north of Rancho San Diego. To get around the restriction, Reynolds Communities solicited the Otay Water District to install pipes connecting Fuerte Ranch Estates to Rancho San Diego.

“I talked with the Otay Water District,” says Phillips, “and they don’t put in lines smaller than eight inches in diameter. That’s big enough to handle 100 units. The presence of the sewer will encourage people nearby to subdivide their properties and sell lots.”

In the Reynolds Communities plan, the sewer line would run south, the same direction as the current drainage flow. Contractors would dig a ditch into Damon Lane County Park and then across to where a residential street called Calle Albara dead-ends near the park’s northeast corner. There the line would connect with Rancho San Diego’s sewer system.

Phillips tells me the Valle de Oro planning group and the Grossmont–Mt. Helix Improvement Association have not wavered in their opposition to Fuerte Ranch Estates since the project was first broached seven years ago. Reynolds Communities then wanted 72 units in the subdivision. By the time it arrived for the first time at the County’s Planning Commission, Reynolds had dropped the number of housing units to 40. In early 2009, the commission rejected the project. At a July 22, 2009 meeting of the board of supervisors, the developer requested that a final decision on the subdivision be postponed. According to a KFMB Channel 8 story later that day, “Reynolds Communities plans to use the time to alter the design to alleviate the concerns of neighbors. William Schwartz, an attorney representing the developer, said his client was ‘smarter’ now and understands changes are necessary. [In the late 1970s, Schwartz worked in the county counsel’s office specializing in planning and land-use issues.] Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said violations of the general plan for the area, which calls for one home per acre, ‘will not get them where they want to go.’… Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the area, requested that the developer work with area community groups and then resubmit a redesigned project to the Planning Commission.”

But Reynolds Communities “did not attempt to work out differences with the community,” according to Phillips. When the Planning Commission took up the project for the second time on January 8, the developer had reduced the housing units from 40 to 36 and decreased the height of the building pad from 16 to 10 feet.

The commission approved the project and has sent it to the board of supervisors for a final vote next Wednesday.

“Those changes were put together by the developer and county staff,” says Phillips. “Our community groups were not consulted. We’ve been able to work with Reynolds Communities on other projects, but not this time. And county staff have been cheerleaders for the project all along.”

Susan Brownlee tells me what it was like going to hearings on Fuerte Ranch Estates. “The developer sits huddling next to a county planner. Community members come up from the gallery to address the commissioners. Suddenly the chairman says, ‘Stop, your two minutes are up.’ It’s very nerve-racking.”

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Comments

so sorry to hear of further development in this area...these areas of wildness need to be preserved and not littered with cookie cutter houses

One issue at a time.

  1. When you use a "pad" to "prevent" flooding, you displace that volume of water which makes other places worse, and you change the flow dynamics which makes erosion and flooding and sedimentation worse in other places. This practice is a fraud.

Those in opposition should not kneel before the power for a two-minute tirade; they should protest this cynical and arbitrary "rule" on the part of the Stupivisors and stand on the steps of the County Administration Building and speak to the TV cameras.

Boycott so-called "public" meetings and take your objections to the court of public opinion. Do something visual, and coordinate your message. Do not just rant, but do your homework and stick to the most potent facts.

hey you guys, fight this like hell!!!!! My parents live on Grandview right by there.

Look at the California Environmental Quality Act!! It is the greatest tool. The city continues to break the law. They are more arrogant than ever right now because they have made sure the people in charge of enforcing the law wont enforce it.

They do not supercede the state law no matter what they say.

I have a website www.developeralert.org to try and give people resources to fight this sort of predatory development.

Find out where the money is coming from. Is there any federal money involved, etc. and giv' em hell!!!

and for the love of God, get rid of all those supervisors. Vote them out! I believe Donna Frye is running, she would totally be on your side on this and so would Stephen Whitburn. Get rid of the shills.

And who is loaning any developer money right now to build speculative projects? that is an important question to ask. Here in the City of SD where I now live, now the spec market has crashed we have developers grabbing up houses to demo under eminent domain so they get to take all the property tax dollars (if they are in a redevelopment agency) (Are you guys in a redevelopment area...probably not). The essentially the tax payers are paying to build something they dont want.

We have to address this from the $ angle. If we can stop the irresponsible lending practices that are fueling these projects we can win.

Whatever you do dont give up. You are in the right.

Here is something CEQA considers a substantial impact.... Also find out where the $ is coming from to build the roads.

Typically, the growth-inducing potential of a project is considered significant if it fosters growth or a concentration of population in excess of what is assumed in pertinent General Plans or land use plans, or in projections made by regional planning agencies. Significant growth impacts could also be manifested through the provision of infrastructure or service capacity to accommodate growth beyond the levels currently permitted by local or regional plans and policies. In general, growth induced by a project is considered a significant impact if it directly or indirectly affects the ability of agencies to provide needed public.

Direct growth inducing impacts occur when the development of a project imposes new burdens on a community by directly inducing population growth, or by leading to the construction of additional developments in the same area. Also included in this category are projects that remove physical obstacles to population growth (such as a new road into an undeveloped area or a wastewater treatment plant with excess capacity that could allow additional development in the service area). Construction of these types of infrastructure projects cannot be considered isolated from the development they facilitate and serve. Projects that physically remove obstacles to growth, or projects that indirectly induce growth are those which may provide a catalyst for future unrelated development in an area such as a new residential community that requires additional commercial uses to support residents.

Who is the actual developer on this project? They all seem to hide behind these LLcs so we dont know who the actual people are. But you need to know who they are to make sure there are not any conflicts of interest by the Supervisors voting on this.

And here's a good tip. It looks like from your county charter you have citizen advisory committees that "advise' the supervisors. Here in the city we have a technical advisory committee that advises the mayor. Find out if this developer is on ANY "citizen advisory committees" and if so he has probably advised on projects like this 1 that he has a direct financial stake and that is illegal on a Federal level. I would really look into this one.

Also contact pat flannery. He is super good at understanding what is going on w/ the county board of sups and the developers. you may have an angle. good luck!!!!

The empty suits and skirts on planning staff are both corrupt and incompetent. Vote for Supervisor term limits and vote the incumbents out! Commissioner Day is a corrupt little punk riding on daddy's coattails!

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