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Sewers to Give Valley Center an Urban Look

Times Staff Writer

Imagine escaping from the rush and congestion of city life by moving out into the country, living in the midst of rolling hills, sprawling orchards and groves, and rambling ranches and farms.

Imagine only four homes to the acre, a country road winding its way through the oak trees, and a hardware store, a deli, a gas station and a mom-and-pop restaurant making up the better part of “downtown.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 07, 1987 For the Record Valley Center Broker Against Trailer Park
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 7, 1987 San Diego County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
In a photo caption with a story last Sunday about growth in Valley Center, The Times incorrectly identified real estate broker John Mitchell as a supporter of a proposed mobile home park in Valley Center. In fact, Mitchell has never favored such a development.

Imagine a town with only two four-way stop signs, a weekly newspaper chock full of small-town news and gossip, and an annual parade down the main street.

What’s wrong with this picture? The part about four homes to the acre, if you ask a lot of people living in Valley Center, long a bastion of the bucolic life style and where, for years, zoning called for no more than one home for every two acres.

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Growth Comes Knocking

Valley Center residents say the face of the community will forever be changed because of an impending construction boom that will see not only four but as many as 7.3 homes to the acre--14 times greater than was previously allowed--along portions of Valley Center Road.

The reason for this expected growth is the upcoming installation of a $10-million sewer system that will open up the region to unprecedented growth.

Growth is hardly a new issue in San Diego County, but now it’s knocking at Valley Center’s front door, and many residents there say they feel powerless to prevent it.

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About 4,000 acres in Valley Center’s heartland, known as the Country Town, have been enveloped in a construction moratorium since 1980, when high ground water made a traditional vestige of country living--the septic tank--useless on some home sites. The county Department of Health Services deemed the failing septic systems a public health hazard, a finding that some local residents contend was an overreaction.

Sewers are necessary, officials say, to free the community from the moratorium and to allow homeowners to make such seemingly insignificant improvements as adding a bedroom or building a family home on their two acres.

Critics say the increased population density that will come with the new sewers will introduce urban woes to a region that for years has been considered a refuge from the growth that is overtaking much of San Diego County.

Sewer supporters, on the other hand, argue that the urban amenity will help preserve the area’s rural ambiance in the long run by concentrating growth in a centralized area and by promoting a local tax base that might one day lead to cityhood.

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Funds for Sewers

The sewers are the result of a series of events strung out over the past seven years--sparked by the septic tank moratorium--that proceeded without a public vote and, some say, without full disclosure of the implications. The clincher came when the Valley Center Municipal Water District captured about $6.5 million in state and federal grants in 1984 to pay for most of the new sewer system. Construction bids will be sought in a few weeks.

About the same time that the sewer funds were lined up by the water district in 1984, the separate Valley Center Community Planning Group, an advisory panel to the county Board of Supervisors, recommended that housing density in the Country Town area (as the center of town is known) be significantly increased. The density increases, adopted by county supervisors, were intended not only to take advantage of the incoming sewer system’s ability to accommodate growth but also, conversely, to generate future customers for the water district who would help pay for the sewer system, said planning group chairman John Mitchell, a local real estate broker.

The two developments--the new sewers and the updated General Plan--have triggered plans for new construction the likes of which Valley Center has never seen. The population for the Valley Center Country Town is now expected to reach about 10,800 in 20 years--more than 2 1/2 times greater than the 3,900 population projected before sewers were lined up and the General Plan was amended.

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The Country Town area now has a population of about 1,000.

Initial Proposals

Skeptics say the sewer system will benefit real estate agents and developers who will be able to develop their property and profit handsomely, at the expense of property owners who sought to escape such growth. The majority membership of the planning group, detractors say, is controlled by real estate and development interests; the newest member of the planning group, appointed to a vacancy by other planning group members, is a real estate agent, although several other people applied for the seat.

Perhaps the most extreme of the initial proposals was one by a developer to build a 615-unit “manufactured housing” complex on about 100 acres of grazing land near the intersection of Valley Center and Lilac roads.

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In the wake of local criticism, San Diego builder John Belanich reduced the scope of his project and will now try to build 400 or more single-family homes or town houses on the 100-acre site, said his spokesman, Gene Bellon.

Opponents of Belanich’s proposed “Rancho La Paz” say it resembled a typical city subdivision plopped in the middle of a rural area and stuck out like a sore thumb.

John Vernon, a civil engineer, proposes a somewhat different project on 32 acres he owns, also on Lilac Road near Valley Center Road: two-story duplexes, triplexes or quadplexes on land previously zoned for one unit per two acres and now zoned for a maximum of 4.3 units to the acre. The development, on property studded with oak trees, would feature tennis courts, swimming pools--and a horse corral.

Vernon, who lives in Escondido because the moratorium has so far precluded him from building a home on his Valley Center property, said an architectural and design review board established by the county for Valley Center will help ensure that future development will maintain a rural flavor.

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“You won’t be seeing subdivisions or terraced hillsides or scarred slopes in Valley Center because our guidelines won’t allow for it,” he said.

Altering Community Character

Though four residential units to the acre may not seem onerous by urban standards, it would be unprecedented density for Valley Center and, critics say, would permanently alter the very ambiance and character that attracted residents to this small farming community, situated six miles northeast of Escondido in northern San Diego County.

“Most of us moved out here to get into a rural situation and to get away from Escondido or Los Angeles,” said Rick Seideman, a member of the planning group who opposes the sewer system. “In no way in my wildest imagination did I ever think I’d have to worry about a town center with 7.3 units to the acre.”

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But others, like Hal Jensen, say Valley Center is in a no-win, Catch-22 situation and that sewers offer the only solution--not only against overflowing toilets but also against encroachment by neighboring Escondido.

“There is an erosion of Valley Center (through annexation) into Escondido. If we have a Country Town with a sewer system, we can develop a little industry and a shopping center which will give us a tax base so we can incorporate,” Jensen said. “Otherwise, we’ve got zero protection from Escondido marching right through here and annexing us.” Jensen owns about 100 acres in Valley Center and is president of a paving and excavation company.

Just as there is debate whether sewers will be Valley Center’s salvation or doom, there is debate over whether the sewers will promote growth or will simply serve those who might move to Valley Center in any event.

“We had no option but to put in (higher) density to pay for the sewers, to spread the cost of the sewers so it would be financially viable,” Mitchell said unabashedly in an interview last week.

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“The water district staff will tell you, ‘We’re just the plumbers. We’ll plumb for what you plan.’ But they gave us ballpark figures on what it would cost (to put in the sewers) and it took us 1 1/2 years to work out the (density) figures to help pay for it,” Mitchell said.

Double-Edged Sword

Water district officials note, however, that it is a violation of state law for the absence or existence of sewers to dictate land-use patterns. The sewer project is intended to serve the increased population base, not to be a catalyst for the growth, said Jim McKay, president of the water district’s board of directors.

Pat Jewell, the water district’s chief engineer, said the sewers have proven to be a double-edged sword for Valley Center:

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“The most common comment out here these days is, ‘I guess the sewer is absolutely necessary, but it’s a shame there are going to be so many people out here now.’

“It’s a chicken-and-the-egg issue. We were allowed, as a condition of the grant, to build a sewer system that would serve the area for 20 years, based on population projections.” Those very population projections were based on the presumption that sewers would inevitably be installed.

In fact, the new sewer system will be designed to handle about 2,500 dwelling units--or about half the number of units that could ultimately be built under the updated Valley Center Country Town plan. A second phase would be needed to handle all the construction that could occur under that General Plan--and his staff is already looking at a Phase II sewer expansion, Jewell said.

“We have to look ahead,” he said. “If there was no hope for a future expansion and it’s first come, first serve now for sewer hookups, we’d have a lineup of people wanting to buy the first 2,500 hookups the first day they went on sale, and some people would try to sit on them for 10 years. We don’t want to set up that kind of a panic situation.

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“But then again, if we assume there will be a second (sewer) project, then we get back to the criticism that we’re encouraging growth.”

Whether a community vote would be required to approve an expanded sewer system depends on whether the local utility finances it with local property taxes or with property assessments.

The installation of sewers in a community usually is approved by its residents or voters through an election or protest hearing, because most sewer installations involve tax increases or property assessments.

Voters might then either vote their pocketbook or their philosophy on growth, given that sewers usually trigger quickened and higher-density development.

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No Election

In Valley Center, however, there was neither an election nor a protest hearing on the introduction of sewers because no local property tax money or property assessments are involved.

Rather, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will pick up 75% of the cost of the system, or about $7.37 million, and the state Water Resources Board will pay for 12.5%, or $920,000, of the cost. Both agencies are granting the money because of a declaration in 1980 by the county Department of Health Services that a health emergency existed in Valley Center because of failing septic tank systems.

The remaining $1 million or so of the construction tab, plus several million dollars in additional overhead and design costs, will be absorbed by the district, using hookup fees already collected and a loan of about $4 million through San Diego Savings & Trust, to be repaid with future hookup fees, Jewell said.

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Without the federal and state assistance, there was virtually no likelihood that Valley Center could ever afford a sewer system, everyone seems to agree. Indeed, in an election about 10 years ago, a proposed sewer system--before the moratorium was declared--was soundly defeated as being too costly to local residents. Without the sewers, there was some concern that the building moratorium would continue indefinitely and Valley Center’s central core would see no further construction. That prospect pleased some residents, but concerned others who hoped to eventually develop their property.

While most sewer critics agree that a sewer system of some size is necessary to accommodate the restaurants and other small businesses along Valley Center Road, they say the initial sewer moratorium area--and the subsequent boundaries of the sewer district--is too large, to the benefit of large property owners and land speculators who, because of sewer service, will now be able to split their larger parcels into smaller ones, for handsome profits.

Some critics, led by resident Craig Johnson, who has surfaced as their chief spokesman, say the events leading up to the sewer installation may have been contrived, designed to grease the skids for the installation of sewers.

Moratorium Area Too Large?

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It was to the ultimate advantage of large property owners that such a large moratorium area was originally drawn by the county because it suggested to state and federal officials, who offered the sewer grant, that the problem was worse than it actually was, Johnson maintains.

“The moratorium of the size that was declared was not necessary and not legitimate,” Johnson said. “The water district should have tried to negotiate with the (county) Health Department to find the minimum area that could have been set aside as a moratorium to mitigate the problem.”

Some landowners successfully contested the inclusion of their property in the moratorium area, but most property owners did not know they had that option, Johnson said.

“They took the community hostage, by locking up everyone’s property in the moratorium,” he complained. “There were no hydro-geologic studies to verify the scope of the problem and there were no documented health problems. And most of us didn’t think there was anything we could do about it.”

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Mike Devine, chief of environmental health services for the county, said there was no doubt that there was a significant potential, if not actual, health problem in Valley Center. Raw sewage was flowing across the lowlands, county health officials said, and the only reason more people did not complain was because their septic tank systems were failing as bad as their neighbors’ and they did not want to risk their own homes being condemned.

Altogether, about eight homes in the moratorium area were “red-tagged” for failing septic systems; health officials said they assumed there were many more they were not aware of.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board, based on the county’s moratorium findings in 1980, forwarded to Sacramento the request by the Valley Center Municipal Water District for grants to help pay for the sewers, which were considered the only way to solve the problem.

State water quality officials did not independently study the Valley Center problem but, rather, took the county’s word that a health problem existed, said David Barker, senior engineer for the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

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Valley Center won the state and federal grants with one day to spare before the application deadline.

Possible Suit

That decision by the state’s water quality board to not independently study Valley Center’s health problem may be the basis for legal action contesting the moratorium and the subsequent actions to bring sewers to Valley Center, said John Murdock, a Santa Monica environmental attorney retained by Johnson and others.

The state’s failure to confirm the existence of an alleged health problem is a “breakdown in the due process” that might fault the entire sewer granting process, Murdock said.

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“There is a core of landowners who would like to develop their property, and they realize the only way they could do that was with sewers,” Murdock said. “There is no law against developing one’s property, but there is a law that says you have to play properly, according to the rules of the book, and the (county) Planning Commission was hoodwinked in increasing the area’s density to help pay for the sewers. It’s definitely the tail wagging the dog.”

Poultry farmer George Armstrong, who has served both as president of the Valley Center Municipal Water District board of directors and as chairman of the planning group, said the entire 100-square-mile Valley Center area will benefit by concentrating growth in the Country Town region along Valley Center Road.

“Most everyone wants to keep Valley Center rural, so by setting aside the central area for higher density, there’s more of a chance to keep the outlying areas rural. We’ll contain the density,” said Armstrong, a former city councilman in Bellflower, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Harold Mattly, who advised the Valley Center planning group on its General Plan and is now retired from the county Department of Planning and Land Use, said he remembered advising area residents that they would be opening the door to development once the sewers arrived.

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“People are naive to think there won’t be pressures to increase the densities even more down the line,” Mattly said. “Is the (developers’) foot in the door? Yeah, it could be, but on the other hand, if the foot’s not in the door today, it might be an even bigger foot in the door tomorrow. Valley Center has to relieve some of the pressure.”

Bellon, spokesman for San Diego builder John Belanich, said, “Valley Center is experiencing some growing pains. It’s in the path of progress.”


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