By Mike Allen
October 18, 2022 (Santee) -- A group of four environmental organizations led by Preserve Wild Santee filed a lawsuit to overturn the city of Santee’s approval last month of Fanita Ranch, the 3,000 residential project that has been hotly contested for several decades.
In the lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court Oct. 14, the groups state that the city violated state laws governing new development, its own election codes and those of the state, and that a revised environmental impact report (EIR) is still inadequate, especially regarding the impacts on residents of the project in the event of a major wildfire.
On Sept. 14, the Santee City Council approved Fanita Ranch on a 4-0 vote with Councilman Rob McNelis recusing himself because the project would benefit his property. The Council used a new law it passed in August 2021 called the Santee Essential Housing Program as the legal basis for the approval.
The law provides a system where new development projects can obtain construction permits in an expedited fashion if the projects earn minimum points for such things as affordable housing, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, water and air quality, and recreation and park enhancement.
The Council’s approval of Fanita Ranch bypassed Measure N, a referendum approved by the majority of Santee voters in 2020 that requires any new project that involves a change to the General Plan must go on the ballot.
Van Collinsworth, director of Preserve Wild Santee, an environmental and political action group, said the Council created the new law for the sole purpose of circumventing a public vote on Fanita Ranch.
“Essentially, the city made up a law that says they can break the law, so let’s face them in court,” he said. “We need to find out what the court will rule on that because it has implications well beyond Santee.”
Because the 2,600 acres north of Santee Lakes where Fanita Ranch is planned is in a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” it makes no sense to build some 3,000 homes that would bring in about 10,000 new residents, the suit states.
“California’s affordable housing crisis doesn’t give cities free rein to build unsafe homes in places like Fanita Ranch,” said Peter Broderick, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group based in Oakland. “To prepare for the next disaster, we have to be smarter about where we build, with safety plans that account for the realities of fast-moving fires.”
Broderick added the project also should be denied because it would have a significant negative impact on the area’s natural habitat, and further endanger several species including the Quino checkerspot butterfly, California gnatcatcher and Crotch’s bumblebee.
The Santee City Council originally approved Fanita Ranch in 2020, noting the project by developers HomeFed Corp. was quality, and would benefit the entire community. To entice support, HomeFed promised it would pay for significant highway and road improvements before the first owners moved in.
The approval triggered a voters’ referendum challenging the decision, and qualified it to be put to a public vote. After the council put the project on the ballot for this November, a judge ruled the project’s EIR was inadequate and that the city should rescind its earlier approval.
Using that ruling, the council determined a vote was unnecessary because there really wasn’t a project to vote on, and pulled the measure from the ballot.
At the September meeting when the project was approved, Mayor John Minto said, “They (HomeFed) followed the law, and we followed the law, and now we have a project.”
Minto also predicted the Council’s decision would be challenged. A call and text to Minto requesting comment was not returned.
Vice Mayor Ronn Hall said the lawsuit isn’t a surprise to anyone, and the city will have to “go through the process, and see what happens.” Hall said it’s the ongoing saga of the state of California mandating cities to do certain things such as produce more housing, and then when the city complies, it’s sued.
Told that the suit calls out the EIR’s inadequacy again notably to the extent of impacts from a wildfire, Hall said the city relied on the experts who advised the city on evacuation plans and other parts of the EIR, and that it is up to the court to agree or disagree on the adequacy.
Hall said he’s open to hearing alternative solutions on what to do with Fanita Ranch, including retaining it as a recreational preserve, if a viable plan is presented. “I’m not sold on Fanita Ranch, never have been….Frankly, if it goes away, I have no problem with that.”