March 29, 2012
by Hailey Persinger

Opponents regrouping after Wednesday’s split vote

RAMONA — In a split vote Wednesday, San Diego County supervisors voted to allow a mental rehabilitation facility in rural Ramona to triple its size over the next 10 years.

Despite opposition from Supervisors Pam Slater-Price and Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Ramona, the board approved the proposal from the Highland Valley Ranch Rehabilitation Services group to expand to 36,000 square feet, add about 40 patients and build a small wastewater treatment plant on the property.

The Highland Valley Ranch group now houses 13 patients with head injuries that have rendered them unable to live on their own.

While Jacob stood behind the mission of Highland Valley, she said the proposed expansion would be out of line with the character of the area, a residential community filled with homes on large lots.

Her other concerns, which echoed the same issues raised by residents during past hearings, centered on whether county policy supports the building of the on-site wastewater treatment plant.

Proponents of the expansion argued that the county’s general plan allows property owners to use alternative water systems if they can’t hook into the county-regulated sewer system. Jacobs said the rule applies only to residents whose water systems have failed, one of several points on which she hung her opposition to the proposal.

“What they are proposing is a wastewater treatment plant and that does not fit the definition of an alternative system and it violates the intent of (county policy),” Jacob said before making a motion against the proposed expansion. “That is our legal responsibility. … I don’t think we have any alternatives.”

Supervisor Bill Horn disagreed with the notion that the area isn’t suitable for a residential care facility, a point that has come up multiple times throughout the yearlong back-and-forth over the proposal between the advisory Ramona community planning group and the county’s Planning Commission.

He noted that his district, which spans much of North County, has taken on similar facilities such as Casa de Amparo, a home for children who have escaped or are dealing with abuse. Opposition to such projects has been loud, Horn said, but they would not have been built if supervisors had let it outweigh the positives of the programs.

“I think this is a good spot for people with this kind of disability,” Horn said. “These people are not prisoners. They’re not on probation. They just happen to have a damaged cranium that requires that they have help.”

The project has been a source of anxiety for parties on both sides of the issue since 2004, when Kevin O’Connor, owner of Highland Valley Ranch first proposed an expansion.

When the proposal made it to the Ramona planning group in July, its members denied the project nearly unanimously. Two weeks later, the county’s Planning Commission unanimously approved it.

The planning group and the Highland Valley Road Alliance, a group of about 30 homeowners who live close to the existing facility, filed separate appeals in August of the commission’s decision with the Board of Supervisors.

It’s unclear whether Wednesday’s vote is the end of the fight for the Alliance, which has enlisted Coast Law Group, an Encinitas-based environmental law firm, to dig into the environmental effects of the project.

Sandee Salvatore, who lives about 200 yards away from Highland Valley Ranch and is part of the Alliance, said last week that “a full-blown lawsuit” by the group is being considered.