June 26, 2009 (Santee, California) – On Wednesday, June 24, 2009, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to replace and expand the Las Colinas Detention Facility from 15 acres to 45 acres and certified the final environmental impact report (EIR) for the facility. The vote was 4-1 with Supervisor Dianne Jacob opposing the expansion. On Wednesday night, Santee's City Council voted in closed session to file a new lawsuit challenging the County's environmental impact report. The City of Santee lost a prior lawsuitwhich questioned the County's handling of a $100 million state grant for the project, but has pledged to appeal that decision.
“While we are not surprised, we are disappointed that the County Board of Supervisors chose to approve the expansion of Las Colinas,” said Santee Mayor Randy Voepel. “We have worked hard to become the thriving city we are today. This expansion will occupy 18 percent of our downtown and will significantly handicap the city of Santee and its citizens.”
During the meeting, nearly 30 individuals spoke in opposition of the proposed expansion with two individuals speaking in favor. Many of the opposition speakers expressed concerns about the safety of the residents, the financial impacts on Santee businesses now and in the future, as well as the misuse of tax funds.
“We know that we have a horrible facility right now that should have been replaced years and years ago," said Supervisor Greg Cox, who voted for the expansion. But Gail Ramer, a Santee resident, asked, “Everyone is concerned about the rights of the inmates but what about the rights of Santee residents?”
Supervisor Jacob also expressed significant objections to the proposed project. “I am very concerned about the fiscal issues. We don’t have a complete economic analysis of the alternatives. We don’t know if this is the best cost-effective decision and that concerns me,” said Jacob. “This is bad for Santee, bad for the County and bad for San Diego County taxpayers.”
The city of Santee opposes the expansion and contends that the County’s project objectives are narrowly applied so that it appears the proposed expansion of the existing Las Colinas location in Santee is the only viable option to the County’s female inmate needs.
“As a result of the County steadfastly refusing to have a meaningful discussion with the City and look at the alternatives to expanding the jail in our downtown, Santee has no option but to continue the fight,” Voepel said.
During the hearing, presentations were made by San Diego County Assistant Sheriff Al Guerin and County staff members Esther Daigneault with the County’s Department of Public Works and April F. Heinze with the County’s Department of General Services, who provided an overview of the proposed plan and discussed the EIR and its implications. County staff noted that expanding Las Colinas at its current site in Santee does not meet all of the project objectives, but still maintained that it would be the preferred site.
County staff also stated that “construction of the project at the proposed location would result in significant unmitigable impacts to cultural resources and traffic and transportation.”
There are more than 800 County-owned sites, several of which would be better suited for the expansion of Las Colinas, Santee officials contend, including a 1,210-bed jail facility it has been leasing to a private detention firm in East Otay Mesa, which reverts back to County ownership in a few years and could be a replacement facility for Las Colinas. If the County of San Diego were to sell the land on which Las Colinas sits, as well as the land designated for the expansion, the taxpayers of San Diego County could get $89 million - making this one of the County's most valuable land holdings, a press release issued by the City of Santee stated, adding, “The City believes that land should be sold by the County and the money put toward a new jail or other needed services. If sold to developers , the result could be construction of much-needed affordable housing and jobs.”
The County says that Las Colinas is similar in size and shape to other regional jail facilities throughout the County. But Santee disputes that point, arguing that the proposed expansion by the County of San Diego would triple the size of the current jail, making it the largest facility in the county, and increases the number of beds to 1,216. The expanded jail would also include guard towers, barbed-wire fencing and barracks “much like the farm-type prisons found in rural settings,” Santee claims.
“This expansion is in no way similar to the jail facilities in Vista or Chula Vista, which blend in with their surrounding,” Voepel noted. “This jail spreads out across our city, eating up our downtown and located only a stone’s throw away from schools, parks, churches, residences and businesses. This jail is not appropriate for Santee.”
Santee also challenges the County’s claims when describing the increase in beds from the existing facility to the proposed facility. It has been stated that the jail will grow from 810 beds to 1,216 beds, when it will actually triple in CSA-rated beds from 404 to 1,216. But Santee says the proposed 1,216-bed CSA-rated facility will be the second largest jail facility in the region, and could eventually house over 2,000 inmates. Many of the inmates housed at Las Colinas are charged with serious felonies such as murder, elder and child abuse, drug dealing and more. Currently over 13,000 female offenders are processed through Las Colinas each year and the expansion would at least double that number. Las Colinas Detention Facility was originally built in Santee in the 1960s as a juvenile detention facility. In 1977, the facility was converted to an all-women’s jail and currently houses 675 inmates on an average daily basis. The new facility could be open by 2014.