Photo: Supervisor Bill Horn, County of San Diego
October 14, 2015 (San Diego)--It’s official: County Supervisor Bill Horn won’t get a chance to vote on Lilac Hills Ranch, the massive housing project proposal in Valley Center, about a mile from property Horn owns.
In a message sent to constituents Tuesday, Horn wrote that being forced to recuse himself signifies the chipping away at the foundation of American values.
Horn had sought the input of the state Fair Political Practices Commission over whether he should take part in the Board of Supervisors’ vote on the Lilac Hills project later this month, following a Voice of San Diego investigation that revealed he might have a conflict of interest over the project.
A spokesman for the FPPC confirmed late Tuesday that the agency had ruled Horn had a conflict of interest. The project, if approved, would have a “reasonably foreseeable material financial effect” on Horn’s property, so he should recuse himself from voting on it, the state watchdog said.
The project, pursued by developer Accretive Investments for the last 10 years, would construct 1,700 homes and amenities in the predominantly rural area 45 miles north of San Diego. Because current development restrictions would only allow Accretive to build about 100 homes on the land, the project requires special approval from the County Board of Supervisors before it can move forward.
Horn’s 34-acre property is near the southern edge of the sprawling planned community, but isn’t adjacent to it.
But building Lilac Hills would effectively urbanize the largely undeveloped area, inflating the value of properties in its vicinity by making them viable targets for subsequent development, the FPPC determined.
“Under these facts, a reasonable inference can be made that the financial effect of such a major development in a relatively undeveloped, rural area would have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect on the market value of your real property,” the agency wrote in its response to Horn. “Therefore, you have a conflict of interest in decisions involving the Project and you must recuse yourself from participating in these decisions.”
Horn, meanwhile, responded to the news with characteristic bombast and indignation:
I think this decision is outrageous! My 620-thousand District 5 residents have been disenfranchised. They have voted me into office six times as their voice and silencing them is not democracy. This decision is a clear case of state overreach and a dangerous affront to our Constitution. Under this precedent, every vote can be questioned and dismissed. I have often said the government that governs closest to the people governs best. With this decision, that will no longer be possible. I will abstain with great trepidation and grave concern over the chipping away at the foundation of what we as Americans believe.
Horn’s recusal from the vote could be a major blow to Lilac Hills Ranch. He was widely expected to support the project and has received substantial campaign contributions from the developer. One of Horn’s former staffers is the project’s primary lobbyist. Without Horn’s support, it would only take two county supervisors to vote the project down.
In his letter requesting advice from the FPPC, Horn said the project wouldn’t increase the development potential of his property, because it was subject to the Williamson Act, a California law in which property owners agree to restrict their land to agricultural use or open space for at least 10 year-periods in exchange for lower property tax assessments.
Horn’s property can only be used for agriculture for the next 10 years.
“My property has been in an agricultural preserve since 1975 and that cannot be changed for 10 years at a minimum,” Horn wrote in his response. “I do not believe I have a conflict of interest and I do not think it is reasonable to guess the future more than a decade from now.”
But if Lilac Hills Ranch were approved, it would not be fully built out for 10 years.
That means the full economic effects of the project on the surrounding properties couldn’t be felt until 10 years from now at the earliest. The development restrictions on Horn’s property could therefore expire around the time the project is fully completed, freeing it for potential development, while he continues to experience the tax benefit of the restriction in the meantime.
The FPPC determined the Williamson Act was an irrelevant detail.
“However, we note this is a temporary contract, and in some circumstances, can be terminated before the effective end date. Even if you intended to continue agricultural uses of the property for the duration of the Williamson contract, this is not an appropriate factor to consider in our analysis.”
The way a property owner intends to use a property isn’t a relevant consideration, the agency said. All that matters is whether the official’s decision — in this case, Horn’s vote on Lilac Hills — would increase his property’s value.
Randy Goodson, CEO of Accretive Investments, issued a statement late Tuesday saying the company remained confident the Board of Supervisors would approve the project.
Andrew Keatts is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529. Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com.