Lawsuits, Sewage, and Valiano

The council chambers were full at last Wednesday’s city council meeting. This was due to the attendance of the winners and their families of the city’s Earth Day Poster contest. The contest is really a great way to get kids involved with saving the environment—all the posters are made with recycled materials. Great idea, great contest. You can watch the presentation of the awards to the winners on the city’s meeting video https://escondido.12milesout.com/video/meeting/577beb1a-b33e-4ded-bd45-cdb9e09b5cb1 .

I have noticed before that the majority of the posters come from private and charter schools. This year there were no winners from the regular public schools in Escondido. I know that public school teachers have incredibly difficult jobs, and art education has been given a low priority. But, I think that the mother of one of the winners, sitting next to me, was wrong when she told her son that there were no contestants from the public schools, because all the teachers did there, was babysit. I have a feeling that the look on my face when I heard her say this revealed my distress at such a notion, because she quickly looked away and changed the subject.

The most interesting topic of discussion was on the consent calendar, Item 6: Valiano Project Sewer Flow Agreement. I’ve written extensively about the history of development in the Eden Valley/Harmony Grove/Elfin Forrest area. But, to summarize, Valiano is a proposed 326 plus home development north of the new Harmony Grove Village development. I say new development, but the “Village” has been in the works, causing disharmony in Harmony Grove since the beginning of this century. See: https://ablueviewescondido.com/2015/03/31/eden-no-more/ and https://ablueviewescondido.com/2015/03/31/eden-no-more/ for that history.

Item 6 was on the Consent Calendar, I guess, because it was continuing a process that had begun at a meeting on December 9, 2015 with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and the developer of the Valiano Project. I had attended and written about this meeting: https://ablueviewescondido.com/2016/01/11/sewage-service-other-unsavory-deals/  It had been approved by the Council at the time: Mayor Sam Abed, Councilmembers Mike Morasco, John Masson, and Ed Gallo. Councilwoman Olga Diaz was absent at the meeting.

As I had pointed out, the Valiano MOU:

if approved, will break the promises made by the County to residents in the area. The City will provide sewer service to the project for approximately $1.7 million. The developers of Valiano, Integral Communities, will also reconstruct the Sewer Pump Station No. 12, and the new pipes it will require. The reason for this is that the “Developer wishes to avoid constructing an onsite wastewater treatment plant and disposal facilities in conjunction with the Project.” The developer has also agreed to provide a 5.5 million gallon wet weather storage facility. This, theoretically, would avoid the occasional overflow of the secondarily treated sewage into the Escondido Creek. Such overflows have occurred before, incurring major fines to the City. This facility will be on the site of the development. It is treated sewage, but not sure that fact will make it more appealing to the current residents. They’re not particularly enthusiastic about the project. See: http://www.friendsofedenvalley.com/about.html .

The developer also agreed to make improvements to Country Club Drive and contribute $250,000 to the “eventual completion of Citracado Parkway.”

There is an escape clause: “If the County does not approve the Project Entitlements, or the City is not able to enter into a sewer service agreement with the County on terms acceptable to the City, then the Parties agree that neither Party is bound by this MOU.” We can only hope that will be the case.

Well, the Escondido City Staff seems to feel everything is hunky dory for continuing. The General Manager of Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District, Greg Thomas disagrees. It turns out that the County of San Diego has negotiated an agreement with Rincon wherein Rincon is now in charge of the Harmony Grove Village water treatment plant. Now the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council had through various legal battles with San Diego County made it a requirement that the Harmony Grove Village treatment plant service Harmony Grove Village and only Harmony Grove Village, not the proposed Harmony Grove Village South or the Valiano project. Rincon has now begun a study to determine the feasibility of adding sewage service to Harmony Grove Village South and Valiano to the Harmony Grove Village plant, a study paid for by the developers of Harmony Grove Village South.

Thomas argued that the Escondido Council should delay any decision about the agreement until the study was completed. He noted that the two proposed projects, Valiano and Harmony Grove Village South had basically three possible options for sewage treatment. First, they could build their own, on-site facilities, second, hook up to Escondido’s plant, and third, connect to the Harmony Grove Village Plant (Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council be damned.) Thomas noted that the Escondido’s agreement would make it imperative for Valiano to only hook up to Escondido’s plant. Thomas said that the council’s approval of this agreement at this time would be “putting the cart before the horse.” He recommended that the council take no action.

Jacqueline Arsivaud-Benjamin, Chair of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council also recommended no action. She noted that this agreement would be the beginning of annexation of the proposed development into the City of Escondido. (Escondido can only provide sewage service to properties within its boundaries.) The Valiano project is not contiguous with Escondido’s city boundary, and the annexation of Valiano would require the annexation of many of the single family homes now within the county.) Arsivaud noted that approval by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) would be required, and that the recent approval of Valiano by the San Diego Board of Supervisors was being challenged by strong lawsuits.

Douglas Dill of the San Dieguito Planning Group pointed out that at the planning group’s February 8, 2018, meeting, where the two projects, Valiano and Harmony Grove Village South were considered by the group, of the 75 residents that attended, all were against the developments.

Mid Hoppenrath, former Chair of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council also referred to the current litigation against the developments, adding that they posed a fire risk to all the current residents. She pointed out that part of the Valiano project was out of Escondido’s Sphere of Influence (SOI). Hoppenrath had been one of the prime activists behind the Harmony Grove movement to remove itself from Escondido’s SOI years ago.

An Eden Valley resident, and owner of horses, noted that the meeting was occurring during what was horse feeding time for many of the area residents, and made attendance difficult. She also hoped the council would take no action.

Representatives of the developer of Valiano downplayed the threat of lawsuits, emphasizing the approval of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) in July. It was logical to use the Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility (HARRF), there was synergy, Escondido will gain wet water storage, a new pump, as well of lots of new customers. The environmental impact report produced for the project had been exhaustive. It would be a win for the city and the developer. The number of homes to be built by their Specific Plan Area, the BOS had approved wasn’t many more than would have been allowed under Escondido’s General Plan (GP). (Actually it is a lot more homes. Escondido’s GP designates the area as Estate I—one home per 1 to 4 acres. Steep slopes in the area would make it very difficult to build more than 50 homes under that Estate designation. Far less than the 380 total dwelling units proposed.)

The last public speaker was J.P. Theberge, Vice-Chair of the Town Council. He, like all the other public speakers (other than the developer reps) complained about the lack of notice of this meeting. They had only found out the item was on the agenda on the Monday before the meeting. The Town Council was suing the county over approval of Harmony Grove Village South and Valiano, as was the Sierra Club. The fire evacuation proposed was severely inadequate—it was already insufficient and thousands more cars would make the situation intolerable as there had been no traffic capacity added since the 1960’s. If the council approved this agreement it would be the first step for annexation of Valiano to Escondido, and part of Valiano was in the Harmony Grove area that had fought to remove itself from Escondido. He too asked the council to make no decision that night.

Escondido Director of Utilities, Chris McKinney, was then on the spot to try and save the agreement. He agreed that Valiano was within the Rincon District, but not within Rincon’s wastewater service area. There would be a large benefit to the city, and connecting to the HARRF was the most cost effective way to provide sewer service. The impending litigation was not a reason to forestall, because if the litigation was successful the agreement would be nullified. He reiterated the benefits to the city, and avowed the city would save millions if the agreement went forward.

Morasco said that the agreement would be a placeholder for the city. If the litigation was successful, or if LAFCO refused the annexation, the agreement would be negated, otherwise the developer would be bound to only work with Escondido.

Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez was concerned about the lack of notice that the speakers had mentioned. McKinney said that the agreement would not make annexations necessary, but just preserve Escondido’s right to annex. (Huh?)  Martinez asked if the city had contacted Rincon, McKinney said yes, a few weeks ago.

Councilwoman Olga Diaz objected to the lack of a map in the staff’s report. She had been given parcel numbers only. She questions what the county’s general plan would have allowed before the Specific Plan Area for Valiano had been approved. She wondered why this wasn’t a violation of Prop. S.  Escondido had not been involved in approving the EIR for the project, and the council had not been made familiar with the EIR. She remembered being warned, years ago, that the HARRF would reach capacity.

McKinney assured her that the drought had changed the city’s residents use of water, the focus on water conservation had eased the urgency of the issue from what it had been ten years ago. The addition of the development would not significantly add to the HARRF’s burden.

Diaz asked who was responsible for notifying residents about the item. City Manager Jeff Epp tried to assure her that no noticing was required other than the Brown Act, and that the posting of the meeting’s agenda on the city’s website was all that was necessary. Epp loudly repeated that no noticing was required! Diaz responded that if only as a matter of etiquette, people living near the project should have been notified, especially if their homes might be annexed into the city. She would not vote for this agreement, she felt the council should hold off on any action.

Below is a map of the project—that might have been useful to Diaz. The area labeled “Southern portion of the Specific Plan Area” is not within Escondido’s SOI. Note all the “Single-family Homes” within the county between the Specific Plan Area (Valiano) and the City of Escondido’s border. In order to be annexed, many of those homes would also have to be annexed in order to meet LAFCO’s rules about annexation.Valiano

Mayor Paul McNamara seemed to be going through a check list with his questions to McKinney. The county had approved the project? Check. Litigation could stop the project, and would automatically stop the agreement? Check. The project would not overburden the HARRF? Check. The City would gain a pumping station, emergency storage? Check. This would only happen if LAFCO says yes? Check. If we say no, the developer will have to find another option? Check.

Martinez said she felt there were too many unanswered questions to proceed.

Then Epp seemed to forget that he worked for the council, not the other way around. He schooled the council members that it was their obligation to only do what was best for the residents of Escondido, not residents of surrounding communities. He informed them that they needed to take the very knowledgeable advice of the staff, implying that they (the council members) obviously did not have the wisdom that the staff had.

The measure failed with Morasco and McNamara voting yes, Diaz and Martinez no.

 

 

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