Regardless of how you slice it, if approved, a proposed development of 1416 acres of untouched wilderness in Julian, known as the Hosking’s Ranch Development, violates state law, reads a February 4 letter from California’s Department of Conservation to San Diego County’s Planning and Development Services.
Despite the warning, on February 5, 2016, the county’s planning commission approved the plan, moving it on for a final vote by the board of supervisors, expected to occur in July or August of this year.
In the meantime, a group of Julian residents says that the planning commission vote is the latest example of elected officials and county staff giving preferential treatment to well-heeled and influential developers. They hope to convince county supervisors to follow the state’s opinion and reject the project. If unsuccessful, residents are left with few options short of a lawsuit.
Genesee Properties Incorporated, based out of Lakewood, Colorado, is proposing to develop the land, which is located less than a mile west of downtown Julian. Genesee’s proposal, called Hosking’s Ranch II, calls for 24 residential properties, ranging from 40-acre to 160-acre lots on the 1416-acre parcel.
Genesee’s owner, billionaire businessman Linden Blue, has a long and storied past in San Diego County. Blue and his brother James Neal Blue own General Atomics, San Diego County’s largest defense contractor and one of the region’s largest employers.
And while the development is not overly intense, there’s a problem: the property is currently enrolled in a state program called the Williamson Act.
Established in 1965, the Williamson Act was passed to preserve open space and agricultural land by thwarting premature and unneeded development projects.
In exchange for enrolling in the Williamson Act, property owners such as Blue are awarded tax breaks, discounts as much as 25 to 70 percent off their annual property tax assessments. In Blue’s case, the tax break amounted to $36,000 in 2006.
The program is voluntary, but landowners must follow strict rules when trying to cancel. They are faced with two options. The first is to notify the state of nonrenewal. This option, however, is not instantaneous: after notification, the clock begins on what is a ten-year-long withdrawal. Each year, the property taxes are increased until the tenth year, when the taxes are based on fair-market value.
The other option is much quicker: the property owner can pay a cancellation fee in order to exit the program. The owner then is required to follow certain steps — for example, hold public hearings and submit paperwork — before the cancellation is made final.
Up until now, Genesee has done neither.
Genesse Properties first submitted plans to develop the land in 2003. The proposal called for building 31 residential units on the 1416 acres. But before the project could gain any steam, the state’s Department of Conservation rejected the proposal and urged county planners to do the same.
“The Williamson Act prohibits the subdivision of contracted land for residential development,” reads a November 7, 2003 letter obtained by the San Diego Reader.
“The [notice of preparation] does not ascribe any agricultural purpose to the subdivision. Rather, it describes earthwork for graded pads, access roads, and private drives.… Therefore, the [Department of Conservation] concludes that the subdivision would result in residential development not incidental to the agricultural use of the land, and the tentative map must be denied.”
In 2006, Blue and Genesee returned with a slightly smaller proposal. Instead of 31 lots, the proposal called for 24 parcels. Despite the scaled-down version, the proposal did nothing to follow the provisions of the Williamson Act.
Despite the apparent violations, San Diego County supervisors refused to kill the project. Instead, supervisors directed staff to work with Genesee Properties to come up with a solution to subdivide the property while allowing them to remain in compliance with the Williamson Act.
In 2015, a new plan surfaced. The 24 estates remained, but in order to address the Williamson Act violations, Genesee agreed to set aside a large contiguous easement aimed at commercial agricultural use.
Genesee brought in 60 head of cattle for grazing and breeding purposes. Doing so, surmised county staff and Genesee, satisfied the Williamson Act and allowed them and future owners to keep their hefty tax breaks.
The new plan and the easement, however, did not sway the state’s position. On February 4, the Department of Conservation issued another letter stating the proposal violated the provisions of the act.
“The proposed subdivision of contracted land has no relevance to the existing commercial agricultural use of the land: therefore, the imminent residential development which will follow this subdivision cannot be considered incidental. …[T]he department finds the proposed subdivision inconsistent with the Williamson Act and the Subdivision Map Act,” read the letter.
At their hearing the following day, the county’s planning commission approved the tentative map for the development, the last step before moving it on to the board of supervisors. Their approval came without considering the state’s opinion. Timing, says Alex Bell, a spokesperson for the county’s planning and development services department, was to blame for that.
Says Bell, “The letter from the State Division of Land Resource Protection was received by County Planning & Development Services on February 8, 2016, three days after the February 5, 2016 planning commission meeting. The county was not aware of this letter by the at the time.”
When asked why staff did not seek the state’s opinion before the planning commission meeting, Bell said, “It is not the planning commission’s duty to check with state departments. It is staff’s responsibility to ensure adequate [environmental] documentation and project consistency with all applicable local, regional and state laws. The Division of Land Resource Protection was sent the draft [environmental impact report] for review in the summer of 2013. Comments were not received from the [state] during that review period.”
Julian Action Committee
Opposition to the development intensified in the days and weeks after the hearing. The group, calling itself the Julian Action Committee, obtained copies of the state’s letter and began to pass it around to county staff, residents, and outside preservation groups.
The committee then urged the Julian Community Planning Group, which had approved the project in July 2015, to docket the item and review the state’s letter. The planning group agreed.
Days after posting the agenda online, the attorney for Genesee Properties, Jeffrey Chine, sent the planning group a letter warning that individual volunteer planners could be sued if they agreed to reconsider the project.
“Clearly, there is no basis upon which to reconsider the prior votes taken on the project and the recent [Department of Conservation] letters being used as a thinly veiled political tactic advanced by those disappointed in the planning commission’s unanimous vote to recommend project approval,” read Chine’s May 4, 2016, letter.
“Reconsideration by the planning group would contravene county rules and policies governing planning groups, ignore advice received from county staff and potentially strip the planning group and its members of the defense and indemnification protections afforded planning group members….”
Brian Kramer is a member of the Julian Action Committee. Kramer’s property overlooks Genesee’s 1416 acres.
“There’s so much more to this opposition than just some NIMBY argument about diminished views and increased traffic,” says Kramer. “Our home looks down on this entire planned housing development. Sure, I’m not happy about the views but it’s something I could live with if this project was built in accordance with the law. And, it’s something I could live with if I were given a chance to give my input during the development stage. The first I really knew about it was ten days before the planning commission hearing. There was considerable outrage from Julian residents after discovering how far this project had gotten with almost a complete absence of noticing.
“A billionaire will continue to receive tax breaks and be able to get that much more profit by promising prospective owners nominal property tax bills while our small community struggles to provide public safety and public works services to them.”
Kramer is worried that if supervisors decide to grant final approval then a precedent will be set.
“In 2006, supervisors should have told Blue and Genesee to exit the Williamson Act. They would have paid the cancellation fee and then moved on with this development. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have at least been comfortable with the fact that they followed the rules.”
Kramer and the other members of the Julian Action Committee are not the project’s only opponents. In a May 3, 2016 letter, an attorney for the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, a group that has commenced legal action on several occasions in the name of conservation, sent a letter to the county planning department asking it to deny the permits until Genesee complies with the Williamson Act or exits the program.
San Diego County supervisors are expected to discuss the project in July or August of this year.
Attorney Chine for the Genesee Properties did not respond to a request for comment.