San Diego County officials could use their power to take private property from neighbors of Lilac Hills Ranch to make way for the 600-acre, 1,700-home project in rural Valley Center.

The Board of Supervisors may force the project’s neighbors to sell land to the private developer, Accretive Investments, so they can make road improvements.

With the expected influx of people and traffic to the area, the developer must widen two existing roads that border the project to meet county road safety standards, according to a county staff report on the project.

During an Aug. 7 Planning Commission meeting, several of the property owners who would be affected testified that they wouldn’t willingly sell their property to the company.

Bruce Christensen lives on West Lilac Road, which is on the northern border of the project and also needs to be widened, across the street from Accretive-owned property.

“We aren’t selling,” Christensen said. “If they want to widen the road, why don’t they widen it on their side?”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

If the neighbors refuse to sell all the land the developers need to make the improvements, the county would need to seize the property using a governmental power called eminent domain, which allows it to seize private land for public benefit – with Accretive paying the neighbors the market value of their lost land. If Lilac Hills is approved, the company can ask the Board of Supervisors to do this.

Accretive, for its part, has tried to emphasize repeatedly over the years that it would prefer not being forced to use eminent domain.

Instead, it asked the county to give it exceptions to the various requirements that would otherwise force it to widen the two road segments.

Last month, neighbors who might have to give up portions of their property got a letter from John Rilling, Accretive’s vice president.

He began by telling residents he was writing to set the record straight.

“First, we have not submitted any proposal to use eminent domain for Lilac Hills Ranch and we do not need eminent domain,” he wrote.

Instead, he said, the company was forced to study a bunch of ways to handle traffic around the community, as part of its environmental review of the project.

One of those options included road widening, and that’s the option the local planning group – which vehemently opposes the project – has said it prefers.

“The (planning group) is still pursuing the unnecessary widening of West Lilac Road and the resulting eminent domain to create a ‘hot button’ topic in an effort to generate publicity against Lilac Hills Ranch,” Rilling wrote.

He encouraged neighbors to write to the Planning Commission, and urge it to choose an alternative that wouldn’t require the company to widen the road.

“We support private property rights and have made sure that our proposal does not require eminent domain,” he wrote.

But making the project happen without using eminent domain would mean granting the developers an exception to road safety standards. County staff has said the developers shouldn’t get that exception – and that could require eminent domain.

In a county report given to the Planning Commission, which recommended the project for approval, staff said that how Accretive gets the property to widen the road isn’t the county’s problem right now.

The county and developer Accretive Investments might seize private property to move the Lilac Hills project along.

“The question of overburdening Mountain Ridge Road is a legal question between private parties,” the report says.

Mountain Ridge Road would provide access to the southern tip of the project, where senior housing would be located. The road is narrow, with steep hills that resemble a roller coaster.

Nonetheless, the report acknowledges in multiple places that improving the roads to an acceptable width would require using eminent domain.

A lawyer representing one of the project’s neighbors said county staff is contradicting itself.

Staff has called the road-widening issue a private dispute between neighbors. Yet it has acknowledged eminent domain is a possible solution. Eminent domain is by definition a government action.

“The very purpose of eminent domain is to take land from a private landowner for a public purpose,” attorney Daniel Watts wrote in a letter to the county.

In an interview, he called the county’s approach disingenuous.

“Right now on paper, eminent domain is a back-up plan,” Watts said. “But they know that some people don’t want to sell their house and their land – and they shouldn’t be forced into it.”

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Land Use, Lilac Hills Ranch, Must Reads

    Written by Andrew Keatts and Maya Srikrishnan

    Andrew Keatts is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact him at or 619.325.0529. Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

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    Ruth Mattes
    Ruth Mattes

    The developer may say HE won't use or need Eminent Domain BUT Bill HORN will have no problem using it to "make" the project safe!!!!

    This whole project stinks of GREED!!!!!!

    sandiegosteven subscribermember

    This project is not smart growth. 

    George Courser
    George Courser subscriber

    Brace yourselves for another hearty round of circular arguments...this time fostering corporate welfare.

    Lord no, the developer does not want any form of eminent domain. That stuff is way pricey,

    nearly impossible to negotiate without huge attorney fees and stigmatizes the County Board of Supervisors.

    Once ED is invoked as a public safety measure, the project will implode economically as every self-preserving homeowner employees a Professional Engineering firm to evaluate their road safety conditions. With 1,700 added homes and twice that number of cars on these rural roads, safety and liability will be forefront concerns. This is not lost on the developers or their allied County Development "Services" staff. Hopefully, also not on the Board of Supervisors and their County Counsel who will be the required deep pockets if any type of go-ahead is signaled with existing roads.

    Widespread safety improvements in this terrain of hairpin turns, limited visibility and frightening cliffs would be justifiably expensive - although required infrastructure to accommodate growth comparable to that of new city placed in the exiting AG zoning.       

    That will be the project evaluation point where the development no longer pencils, makes no economic sense and the developer claims it to be "infeasible" due to County safety demands and requests the BOS to disregard widening and consider cheaper alternatives, such as signing or flashing lights. Oh, and dropping any eminent domain discussion.

    Let's see how persuasive this corporate begging is to Board of Supervisors Chairman - and former developer - Bill Horn.         

    No pressure here Bill. Just be honest.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    But for the proposed project, there is no need to widen the road.  Therefore, logically, the widening is for the benefit of a private venture. Eminant domain is not to be used to benefit a private venture, just look at what happened in downtown San Diego when the city took the business owner's cigar shop so a private developer could build a project.  The city got its hand slapped and paid out.  I don't see how this effort on the County's part would ever be successful in court but it's a shame that the residents may have to go that route to stop a body that is supposed to represent them.  

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Geoff Page Good point. Eminent domain isn't needed. Simply tell the developer that they may build 'x' number of parking spaces without widening the road, or 'y' number (where y>x) if they widen it. Then let the developer decide whether to widen it or not, and if yes, how to do it without eminent domain.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Derek, not sure I understand the parking issue you mention.  The widening, according to the article, has to do with moving traffic and safety.  The existing road would need to handle a lot more traffic, which then makes the existing road unsafe.  It is apparently OK now with the existing population and traffic so it is only the project that is causing this requirement.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Geoff Page If the project could only build up to 10 parking spaces total, would it generate too much traffic for the road? Would people drive to a place in such numbers as to overburden the road if there's no place to park at their destination?

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Well considering how many residences they plan to build, there would be a lot of traffic in and out.  If you are suggesting that the project severely limit parking in the project, to the point of not providing parking for each unit, I don't think that is realistic.  Who would buy a residence if there was no place to park a car?  Additionally, this is a remote area, so mass transit isn't an option I think.  Is this your point?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Geoff Page If the developer were only allowed to build 10 parking spaces without widening the road, would Lilac Hills Ranch still overburden the road?

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Maybe I'm being dense but it seems like you just repeated what you said earlier.  The requirement to widen the road probably encompasses more than just residential vehicle traffic.  It would include construction traffic, services traffic, emergency response traffic.  Are you trying to make a point here that I am missing?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Geoff Page Would the road need to be widened for "construction traffic, services traffic, emergency response traffic" even if the developer made the Lilac Hills Ranch development so small that it only needed 10 parking spaces?

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Ah, I guess I see your point now that a much smaller development would not have as much traffic and would perhaps not require the road widening.  Using the figure of 10 spaces, the "development" would be very small indeed and it probably would not require the widening.  But, unless you have a point behind this that you plan to reveal, the discussion is academic and moot, the planned development is very large and that is what we are dealing with. 

    The developer has invested in a large parcel of land and would surely not be interested in a development that small.  The question should be, what size of development would not require the widening.  The problem is that this is an old road and whenever these things take place, the public agencies are often forced to bring existing facilities up to the newest safety standards.  The requirement could be triggered by even a small development. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Geoff Page "the planned development is very large and that is what we are dealing with."

    Plans can change. Giving the developer the choice between:

    1. Limit the number of parking spaces down to whatever the road can handle, or
    2. Widen the road

    It would solve the problem just as effectively as forcing #1 on them. When everything else is equal, shouldn't something that increases freedom always be preferred over something that reduces it?

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Well, someone would have to do a return on investment (ROI) calculation.  First, the County would have to tell the developer what size development it could build without needing to widen the road.  The developer would then make the calculation and see if it was worth its time and effort to build a smaller project.  

    But, that still doesn't get around the possible problem of safety improvements - widening the road - the County might be forced into because of a new development of any size. Whenever a remodel of a building is done, regradless of the work, the owner is often forced to bring the current building up to the latest safety codes even if the planned work does not involve that.

    Regarding your freedom comment, philosophically, I agree with you but that is not a consideration in a matter like this.  That is a whole other discussion.  Most developers don't deal with concepts like like what should and shouldn't be, what is right or wrong, or freedom.  They deal in dollars and cents and leave those discussions for others.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Geoff Page "Well, someone would have to do a return on investment (ROI) calculation."

    Don't developers already do that?

    "But, that still doesn't get around the possible problem of safety improvements - widening the road - the County might be forced into because of a new development of any size."

    Are you saying the safety improvements aren't needed even if Lilac Hills Ranch isn't built?

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Sure they do but they can't run one for this "smaller" project we are talking about until they know how big it can be.

    Yes, Lilac Road might not require safety improvements if the project isn't built.  But, I'll add one caveat.  Some of the improvements may have to be done even if the development isn't built simply because the county has studied the road and is now fully aware of any safety issues.  This would probably not include widening the road but might include other things.  If there was an accident on the road in the future and an attorney found records that showed the road was deemed deficient at one time and nothing was done by the County, the County would be liable. 

    Steve Hutchison
    Steve Hutchison

    @Derek Hofmann @Geoff Page Reading the discourse between Hofmann and Page reveals that Hofmann hasn't had to deal with the realities of the land use process that is codified in law. Page has made a valiant attempt to get to Hofmann's point, a simple one, that unfortunately isn't based in the laws and regulations that govern land use and eminent domain. The fact is that the project is proposing to build 1746 houses and 90,000 square feet of commercial uses on 608 agricultural acres in the back country of San Diego County. Technical studies project somewhere around 16-17,000 average daily car trips from the project, compared to about 1300 now. Parking spaces don't enter the calculation except for the commercial areas and those are determined according to a formula that sets the minimum requirement. Parking spaces are not a negotiable item. The bigger point is that the general plan covers the requirements for such developments and this project doesn't meet those requirements, not even close.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Steve Hutchison "Technical studies project somewhere around 16-17,000 average daily car trips from the project, compared to about 1300 now."

    16-17,000 daily trips on that little, winding road? How can that possibly be true? It's like the study that said if One Paseo is built, the delay at one particular freeway onramp will be 47.61 minutes in 2030. Do you know anybody who sits in their car for 47.61 minutes every day just to get onto the freeway? Do you think you will be doing that 15 years from now?

    SDResident subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @Steve Hutchison

    Derek, maybe you can find a developer that will build 1700 units with only 10 parking spaces.  It would be interesting to see how long it takes to sell the units.

    Personally I'd prefer they not build there at all given it's distance from required infrastructure.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @SDResident "Derek, maybe you can find a developer that will build 1700 units with only 10 parking spaces."

    Would it be a problem if such a developer doesn't exist and so the development never gets built?

    SDResident subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @SDResident No it would not be a problem because no developer would build a project that assumed everyone would use bicycles or walk everywhere they went.  That's the point, your argument about parking spaces is meaningless.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @SDResident What exactly is your concern about giving the developer a choice between widening the road or downsizing the development so that the road doesn't need to be widened?

    SDResident subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @SDResident Any development in that area is going to require widening the road.  Even if they only build 10 units they will still need to have roads wide enough to allow for fire and emergency vehicles to access the development.