The county’s Planning Commission voted unanimously March 13 to deny a tentative parcel map for a subdivision off Rancho Heights Road in Pala, but the Planning Commission will discuss the issue of alternatives to secondary access requirements at an April 24 workshop.
The lack of an acceptable fire protection plan caused the Planning Commission to vote against granting a tentative map which would have subdivided 73.8 acres into four residential parcels and one remainder parcel. “It’s not even close,” said Planning Commissioner Adam Day.
“It’s in compliance with CEQA,” Commissioner John Riess said of California Environmental Quality Act regulations, “but the findings cannot be made.”
Hadley Johnson and Gale Ruffin purchased the property in 1982 and planned to grow avocados on the land. “With the water shortages that’s not going to be an option any more,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Ruffin began the process of subdividing the land, which has A70 limited agriculture zoning, for rural residential property. The county’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) received the application for a tentative parcel map in February 2003.
An environmental Mitigated Negative Declaration was circulated for public review in early 2004. The Endangered Habitats League protested that impacts were not mitigated to less than significant levels, that impacts were not minimized to the extent feasible, that unmitigated fire hazard impacts remained, and that the cumulative analysis of project impacts was not provided. County staff determined that the comments raised a fair argument relating to fire safety issues, and following the October 2003 fires county staff determined that it could not recommend approval of projects which lacked adequate access or year-round fire protection service. County staff subsequently requested a fire protection plan which would identify design elements or mitigation to reduce fire hazard impacts. The submitted plan was deemed inadequate since it did not provide secondary access or identify an acceptable source for full-time fire protection. A revised fire protection plan was submitted in December 2004 which increased the size of fuel management zones but did not address the lack of secondary access or county-recognized full-time fire protection.
During a project issue resolution meeting Johnson requested that a “shelter-in-place” plan be accepted as providing the “same practical effect” of the secondary access requirements. The resolution also called for Johnson and Ruffin to address full-time fire protection issues through an annexation into the North County Fire Protection District; the fire department review would also determine whether the extension of water lines or the installation of on-site water tanks would be required.
The applicants and the county were at an impasse regarding the acceptance of the fire protection plan, and due to inadequate county-recognized progress both the tentative map application and a time extension request were denied in May 2008. An appeal was filed to the Planning Commission, which in July 2008 gave Johnson and Ruffin six months to provide an acceptable plan.
In October 2008 a fire review briefing group consisting of various fire marshals recommended denial for inadequate response time, existing road conditions, dead-end road length, fuel-brush management conditions, and the lack of a feasible secondary access route. The group also determined that the project was not a good candidate for a shelter-in-place alternative to a secondary access route.
“There are multiple regulatory problems with the proposed project,” said DPLU planning manager Rosemary Rowan. “The project would create a potentially significant impact which could not be mitigated.”
The facilities element of the county’s general plan stipulates a maximum emergency response travel time of ten minutes for estate development homes. “That time is important for future residents of the subdivision,” Rowan said. “Travel time is also important for structural fires, particularly when a structural fire could spread to adjacent wildlands.”
The station which is obligated to respond to the area is CalFire’s Rincon station, which is 17.6 miles away, and the estimated travel time to the project would be 30 minutes. Even if annexation into the North County Fire Protection District is approved, the estimated travel time from NCFPD Station 4 on Pala Mesa Drive is 26 minutes. Annexation of the site, which is approximately 7,000 feet from the fire district’s eastern border, would also require the annexation of all intervening parcels.
Johnson and Ruffin noted the presence of other fire stations, but the Temecula Fire Department and the Pechanga, Pala, and Pauma reservation fire departments are not obligated to respond. Johnson also noted that the general plan has a maximum response time of 20 minutes for rural areas which could be met by mutual aid from Temecula or by the Pala station, although the county would require proof of such an agreement.
Both state fire regulations and the county’s fire code limit dead-end access roads in areas with four-acre zoning to 1,320 feet from the first opportunity to evacuate in two directions. The Rancho Heights site is 4.1 miles, or 21,650 feet, from Pala Temecula Road. Secondary access onto State Route 76 would require four-wheel drive transportation, and such a potential route also includes a locked gate. Additionally, the Pala Indian Reservation abuts the project’s southern boundary and tribal permission would be needed for such access.
Portions of Rancho Heights Road are 20 to 24 feet wide with combustible vegetation close to the roadside, and other parts of the road are 10 to 12 feet wide. Minimum road width requirements allow evacuation from the area while allowing emergency vehicles into the area.
In the event of Santa Ana winds, flames could reach between 70 and 102 feet in height based on the nearby vegetation. The 2000 Pechanga Fire, which was not wind-driven, had flames reaching an estimated 60 feet in height.
“The real reason I’m here is to take a look at the secondary access issues,” Johnson said of his appeal.
Johnson urged the shelter-in-place concept to be considered. “We do have large parcels, so we can create cleared areas,” he said. “That’s the only option that we have at this particular point in time.”
Johnson also noted opportunities for turnouts on Rancho Heights Road.
“It’s very difficult to meet that 1,320 foot requirement,” Johnson said. “Even county public roads are running into this problem.”
Seven other property owners throughout the county addressed the Planning Commission on the issue of shelter-in-place as an alternative to secondary access requirements. The Planning Commission opted to schedule the April 24 workshop to address that issue. “I think it would be a very good workshop,” said Commissioner Bryan Woods.
“I think it’s a worthwhile use of our time,” Woods said. “I think we need to understand the issue better.”
Such understanding would allow the Planning Commission to review the adequacy of shelter-in-place plans for specific projects.
DPLU deputy director Jeff Murphy noted that two key elements were required for a shelter-in-place plan. The first is education and outreach. “It’s important that this stay in perpetuity,” he said.
The second requirement for a successful shelter-in-place program is enforcement for clearing brush to ensure a safe area.
Woods noted that families would be in the homes after the developer has left. “I want to make sure we take care of them,” he said.
“I think it’s a classic example of an ongoing debate,” said Ivan Fox of Fallbrook.
Fox was the only one of the seven other landowners to address Johnson’s project specifically. “We’re talking about people who want to live in rural communities,” he said.
Fox and his wife evacuated from the Rice Fire in October 2007, and despite the presence of multiple access options he still encountered an inability to leave the area. “Secondary access is not the catch-all,” he said.
Evacuation also requires a functioning vehicle with enough fuel to reach the nearest gas station outside of the evacuation area. Shelter-in-place does not require the presence of a driveable car.
“There’s something that needs to be done in this area,” Johnson said.
The denial of the tentative map creates a reversion to acreage for the parcel. Johnson and Ruffin haven’t yet decided whether to retain the parcel until development of additional projects leads to annexation into the North County Fire Protection District or to seek a sale of the property to the Pala tribe.
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