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County reviews secondary access issue revisited in Salvation Army expansion plans

The San Diego County Planning Commission voted to approve a Major Use Permit modification which will allow for the expansion of a Salvation Army camp and retreat off of a Ramona dead-end road, which pending San Diego County Board of Supervisors confirmation will allow for the county’s first shelter-in-place fire protection program on a dead-end road exceeding state and county fire code limits.

The Planning Commission voted 4-2 in favor of the Major Use Permit Modification for the Salvation Army’s Wildwood Ranch facilities off of Mussey Grade Road during its March 19 meeting, although the Ramona Community Planning Group’s appeal will place the decision with the Board of Supervisors. The proposed expansion that would take place over a 20-year period would result in a total of 54 buildings totaling 207,620 square feet, and the site would have a maximum occupancy of 615 people. In addition to being used as a summer camp, during non-summer weekends the facility is used as a retreat for Salvation Army groups and for other non-profit groups who rent the facility.

“Would I send my kids or my grandkids to this camp and feel they were in safe hands?” said Planning Commissioner David Pallinger, whose grandchildren are six and five years old. “I’m confident that they could get out of there.”

While some debate focused on community character, fire evacuation issues dominated the Wildwood Ranch hearing. Although San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff recommended approval in part due to the acceptance of fire plans by public-agency professional experts, the planning commission accepted Commissioner Peder Norby’s amendment requiring that between September and November when fire risk is highest enough bus capacity be available to evacuate all residents at once.

The entrance to the camp is approximately 1 1/2 miles from State Route 67. A gate at the south end of Mussey Grade Road leads to terrain which was once part of the stage coach route between San Diego and Julian but is no longer suitable for evacuation or emergency vehicle ingress.

In March 2009 the Planning Commission denied a tentative parcel map for a proposed four-home subdivision in Pala due to the lack of an acceptable fire protection plan. 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 (if lot size rather than zoning is used, the limit for a parcel exceeding 20 acres is 5,280 feet). At the March 2009 hearing DPLU deputy director Jeff Murphy noted that two key elements are required for a shelter-in-place plan: education and outreach to ensure that future residents are aware of such a plan, and enforcement for clearing brush to ensure a safe area. The county’s consolidated fire code allows local fire code officials to grant a modification to the dead-end length requirements if mitigating factors are present.

In April 2009 the Planning Commission held a workshop on alternatives to secondary access requirements. A “same practical effect” solution can include sufficient road width, turnouts on roads wide enough to meet standards for the full length, and cleared open space areas.

In January 2010 the Planning Commission denied a request to subdivide another Pala parcel into 30 residential lots, in part due to the lack of mitigation measures for a dead-end road segment significantly exceeding the code limits and in part due to the travel time from the nearest fire station.

“I am not willing to allow children and other people to use this as an experiment,” said Ramona’s Carol Angus.

“There’s no guarantee the proposed shelter-in-place plan will be effective,” said Ramona Community Planning Group representative Kristi Mansolf. “Dead-end roads are currently cause for some development projects to be denied here in San Diego County.”

One of the proposed new buildings is a multi-purpose building totaling 16,700 square feet. That building would be constructed of fire-resistant materials and would be able to shelter up to 1,300 people during a wildfire, enabling Mussey Grade Road residents as well as camp occupants to utilize emergency shelter. The building will have brush clearance of 175 feet to the northeast, 600 feet to the northwest, 400 feet to the southwest, and more than 1,000 feet to the southeast.

A fire safety coordinator will be on site at all times, and if a fire is heading towards Ramona and it is confirmed that at least three hours are available for relocation, the camp will be evacuated. If it is not certain that a fire would not reach Mussey Grade Road within three hours, Mussey Grade Road conditions including traffic flow will determine whether evacuation or shelter-in-place will be used.

“This is not a stay-and-defend concept proposal by any means,” said DPLU fire services coordinator Ralph Steinhoff.

Before Steinhoff joined DPLU in January 2003, he worked for the North County Fire Protection District and had been NCFPD’s fire marshal before becoming the district’s deputy fire chief. While many Mussey Grade Road residents cited the lack of fire service due to unsafe conditions in the October 2003 Cedar Fire, Steinhoff noted that the shelter area would also protect fire personnel and apparatus. “If I have an area that I know is safe, I would commit equipment,” he said.

The conditions of the Major Use Permit require fire drills to take place during the first day of a camp or retreat session, and Steinhoff compared those drills to lifeboat drills on a cruise ship.

“The ready, set, go is the central issue,” Pallinger said of the evacuation plan.

The Major Use Permit conditions include a 650,000-gallon water tank (which is expandable to 800,000 gallons). The water tank, the shelter building, brush management, and widening Mussey Grade Road along the site frontage must be complete prior to any

other expansion.

The facility will be rented only to groups, not to individuals, which increases the likelihood that weekend users will arrive and depart by bus or van rather than by individual automobiles. Attorney Matt Peterson, who represented the Salvation Army, noted that the non-residential component would produce quicker evacuations. “They’re not bringing photo albums. They’re not bringing horses,” he said. “They jump on the buses and they’re gone.”

Evacuation to Ramona’s United Methodist Church would be a 6.2-mile round trip which is likely to be completed within 25 minutes, so the fire plan outside of the high-risk months allows for multiple evacuation trips.

“Fires don’t punch the clock,” said fire specialist Joseph Mitchell, who spoke against the expansion. “We can’t quite predict when the fires are going to arrive.”

Mitchell noted that if retreat occupants panic and leave in their own cars, it could impact other Mussey Grade Road evacuation efforts. “This plan is experimental,” he said. “It would put Mussey Grade residents at risk of injury and death.”

The conditions of the major use permit require annual fire marshal inspections to ensure that the camp is in compliance with the fire plan. “At any time he could not allow this camp to open,” said DPLU planner David Sibbet.

Sibbet also noted that shelter-in-place in lieu of evacuation has been used in Crosby Estates and Rancho Cielo Estates in Rancho Santa Fe and at the Barona and Viejas casinos.

Shelter-in-place was also used at the Westmont College gymnasium in Santa Barbara and the Pepperdine University library in Malibu.

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