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Developer and County May Seize Private Property for Lilac Hills Project

The developer of Lilac Hills Ranch must widen certain roads in order to meet safety standards. But if private property owners won’t sell their land to make it happen, the county might use its eminent domain power to force people into selling.

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?”

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 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.”

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