By Mike Allen
June 13, 2022 (Santee) -- After the Santee City Council voted last week to remove the Fanita Ranch project initiative from the November ballot, environmental activist Van Collinsworth called the move not only a slap in the face of local voters, but a clear message that the 3,000-unit development will never go to a vote.
The Council voted unanimously June 8 to take an earlier approved referendum on the project off the ballot because all pf the project’s legal approvals were already rescinded last month. The Council removed those approvals made in 2020 to comply with a judge’s recent ruling, which found the project’s environmental impact report deficient.
That report did not include impacts of a last-minute change by the Council to eliminate a key exit route in case of a wildfire evacuation, a lapse which the court found violated the California Environmental Quality Act requirements.
Given the absence of the plan’s amendments, a referendum on those ordinances “has no legal meaning,” and rejecting the General Plan Amendments would be meaningless because that amendment has already been repealed, according to City Attorney Shawn Hagerty.
This interpretation didn’t sit with either Collinsworth, the director of Preserve Wild Santee, or an allied environmental activist group, the Center for Biological Diversity, which both asserted that the referendum should take place as scheduled.
“I want the city to acknowledge that the people of Santee have earned the right to vote on this project,” Collinsworth said. “They (the City Council) are doing everything they possibly can from allowing the people of Santee to decide on this project.”
Attorney Peter Broderick of the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a letter that the Council’s legal rationale to remove the referendum was flawed. “Finally, allowing the voting public to weigh in on the Fanita Ranch Project through an up and down vote is a key aspect of participatory decision making and serves the underlying democratic purpose of California’s constitutionally authorized voter referendum voting process,” Broderick wrote.
The Council also noted that in addition to not having an actual plan for voters to decide upon, the cost for the issue on the ballot was about $180,000, and deemed excessive.
Collinsworth, who led an effort to challenge Fanita Ranch soon after the Council voted 4-1 to approve it in September 2020, said the council adopted another measure, Ordinance 592, in December that provides a special status for Fanita Ranch that precludes a public vote from ever occurring.
“It’s a sham process,” Collinsworth said. “We know what the City Council will do. They are bought and paid for.”
Mayor John Minto said the ordinance Collinsworth refers to was intended to shorten the length of time for the development approval process for smaller housing projects. He said all development projects must comply with state regulations governing land use and cannot be excluded from the process.
As to charges that the council is in the pockets of Fanita Ranch developer HomeFed Corp., Minto said it is Collinsworth who is bought and paid for by large environmental organizations “to do everything he can to stop growth.”
Collinsworth said the best outcome for the Fanita Ranch property is to keep the 2,600 acres north of Santee Lakes vacant as a natural preserve, and a buffer to the Marine Corps Miramar base. Yes, this region desperately needs affordable housing, but Fanita Ranch is luxury housing, he said.
Asked what he would do should Fanita Ranch plan come back to the council, Minto was reluctant to say how he’d vote. He noted that because the project would need an amendment to the city’s General Plan, it would require a public vote. That was mandated in 2020 when Santee voters passed Measure N, which would put any project that needs an amendment to the existing General Plan on the public ballot for approval.