Group Wins Suit Against County

By Dave Downey, North County Times / Californian, January 24, 2012

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A judge has sided with a Wine Country group challenging Riverside County's decision to give broad power to its planning director to consider projects not permitted in the vineyard area, and to let private schools open in all areas of the unincorporated county.

Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask's tentative ruling, to be made final next month, appears to torpedo Calvary Chapel's bid for a major church expansion and new school on Rancho California Road.

The church earlier tried unsuccessfully to get the county to add houses of worship to its list of acceptable land uses in Wine Country. It later applied for permission to expand after the Board of Supervisors quietly approved an ordinance in November 2010 giving authority to the planning director to process projects not on the list, but deemed "substantially the same in character and intensity."

 

The group, Protect Wine Country, sued in May 2011.

Temecula attorney Ray Johnson, who represents the group, said the judge agreed with its arguments that the county improperly adopted the ordinance without adequate public comment and environmental review. As a result, the county will have to rescind the two policy changes it made in adopting the measure, Johnson said.

Johnson said applications for both the church expansion and soccer fields on 63 acres at Galway Downs were filed under the measure.

The judge issued a verbal ruling during a Friday hearing in Riverside. She intends to issue a written decision Feb. 10, according to court records.

Katherine Lind, assistant county counsel, said the implications won't be entirely clear until the written decision comes. But Lind said, "in general, the court granted the writ," and it looks as if the county's ordinance will have to be set aside.

Lind and Johnson said they will work together to write a proposed "statement of decision" for the judge to consider.

"We'll be evaluating all of our options once the statement of decision and judgment are issued," Lind said.

A church official declined comment Monday.

The proposed Galway Downs soccer complex was scheduled to be considered by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. But George Johnson, director of the Transportation and Land Management Agency, said the application was withdrawn last week.

Protect Wine Country members were quick to declare victory.

"I applaud the decision," said Michael Newcomb, a group member who is also a lawyer. "And I think it's safe to say that Protect Wine Country really did the county of Riverside a favor."

By giving authority to the planning director to process projects not on a list of permitted land uses, the county could have opened the door to extensive development on land suitable for grape growing, jeopardizing Wine Country's future prosperity, Newcomb said.

For their part, county officials have emphasized the planning director's authority does not extend to approving projects; each project still must go through the review process and be voted on.

Ray Falkner, a vintner and Protect Wine Country treasurer who opposes the church expansion, also praised the decision.

"It's a big victory for Wine Country," Falkner said. "We are a very scarce agricultural region that is located in Southern California and is one of the only areas that has the right climate and soil to grow top-quality wine grapes."

He termed it "an abusive use of the land" to develop nonwinery projects on large plots in Wine Country.

The church project included a 50,000-square-foot auditorium, 32,000-square-foot school and 442 parking spaces.

Aside from the development itself, Newcomb said there was concern the school's presence would prevent vineyards in the immediate vicinity. He noted that pesticides may not be sprayed under state law within a quarter-mile of a school where children are present.

Falkner maintained the group is not anti-religion or recreation. "We love churches, we love soccer and we love kids," he said.

But Falkner said the group wants the limited real estate in Wine Country used for vineyards and activities that support them.

"This was an incredible overreach," he said. "It was bad for Riverside County."