March 25, 2012
by Hailey Persinger

RAMONA — A decision set to be made this week by county supervisors on the expansion of a mental rehabilitation center in a Ramona neighborhood could spawn further moves — and possibly lawsuits — from parties on both sides of the issue.

The vote, set for Wednesday, would otherwise end a seven-year-long battle between a group of about 30 Ramona residents and backers of the Highland Valley Ranch Rehabilitation Services group.

The facility on Highland Valley Road houses 13 patients with extreme head injuries that have rendered them unable to live alone. Its owner hopes to add enough space within the next 10 years to bring in about 40 more than it currently serves.

Leaders of the home have also asked supervisors to sign off on creation of a small water treatment plant that would serve the facility.

Opponents fear for their safety and worry about their water supply being fouled by prescription drug byproducts. Proponents maintain that they keep a close watch on patients and have told the county that there is no risk to the water supply.

Both have indicated that they’re willing to fight for their causes.

The 34 homeowners that make up the Highland Valley Road Alliance have pooled their money to bring in the Coast Law Group, an Encinitas-based environmental law firm known most recently for successfully leading the charge against fireworks displays near the beaches of San Diego.

The group filed a roughly 90-page document days before March 14, when supervisors were set to make a final decision on the home’s expansion. Supervisors postponed that vote because of the letter, which argues that environmental scrutiny of the proposed wastewater treatment plant has been inadequate.

The law group also points to articles about prescription drug-contaminated groundwater in Florida and other states as proof that the same could happen in Ramona.

“There’s no definitive study that says ‘no guarantees that it won’t,’” said Sandee Salvatore, a Ramona resident who lives about 200 yards from Highland Valley Ranch.

Salvatore said the Coast Law Group’s letter should give county supervisors reason to side with the Highland Valley Road Alliance.

If they don’t, she said, “then as a neighborhood, we’re going to have to regroup and say ‘are we willing to accept this or are we going to a full-blown lawsuit? It’s on the table.”

A lawsuit is less definitively on the table for the Highland Valley Ranch group if supervisors side with their opposition.

But its owner, Kevin O’Connor, has fought for the expansion since 2004. Frank Keane, an associate program director at the home, said he doesn’t see O’Connor as the type to abandon anything, be it a person or a project.

“He’s been working on this for over seven years. That’s a lot of time and effort,” Keane said. “All I know is the guy is dedicated. It’s a passion for him. I would hope that he wouldn’t give up the fight.”

O’Connor, who could not be reached Wednesday, pleaded with supervisors at the March 14 meeting to think of his fight for the expansion as a fight for the people in the home he runs.

“Everybody needs somewhere to live, someone to love and something to do,” O’Connor said. “My clients are fragile people who are desperately trying to regain some sense of normal life and dignity. They are not to be feared.”

Unless there are subsequent lawsuits, the supervisors’ decision on Mar. 28 will be the final stop for the proposed expansion, which has been batted from the Ramona planning group, which denied the project in July, to the county’s Planning Commission, which approved it unanimously two weeks later.

The planning group and the Highland Valley Road Alliance in August filed separate appeals of the commission’s decision.

If supervisors side with the Highland Valley Ranch group, construction on the first phase of the expansion would last for the next three years and increase the number of clients from 13 to 27.

Construction on the other two phases would begin in about four years.

The Board of Supervisors meeting begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway in San Diego.