July 15, 2009 (Santee)— A public hearing by the Santee City Council on a conditional use permit for a controversial proposed cable ski park for Santee Lakes is tentatively set for the evening of August 12, Allen Carlisle, director of park and recreation for Padre Dam Water District told East County Magazine. Supporters say the cable ski park would create new recreational opportunities for area residents, as well as revenues for the water district and city. But some residents feel the project would be a detriment, not a benefit, to their community.
“They touted the fact that this is for promotion of a healthy lifestyle. Whose? Certainly not the area residents,” Johney Lively said of a cable ski park proposed for Lake One at Santee Lakes, just 300 feet from his home. “Gone forever will be the lake’s scenic qualities. The peace and tranquility which first brought myself and my neighbors to this area will be nothing but a memory. We see the 35 foot towers as swords thrust into our neighborhood and as the gateway to hell, because our quality of life will be turned into a living hell.”
Padre Dam Water District, which operates Santee Lakes, has descriptions and renderings of the project at www.santeelakes.com, as well as a video of sports at a cable ski park elsewhere. Cable-skiing allows people to water-ski and wakeboard without a boat, using a horizontal cable suspended on towers and powered by a “quiet” electric motor that supporters liken to a sewing machine in volume. A restaurant serving alcohol, viewing platform, snack bar and pro shop are also proposed.
“The Park does not receive any tax or ratepayers subsidies,” Carlisle observed. “Our expenses are increasing faster than our revenue stream. If this doesn’t pan out, then I need to look for another way to generate that revenue.” Construction would be privately funded with no outlay from the water district, which would lease the area to the developer. Padre would reap $100,000 in revenues the first year with an annual increase, per the lease. Padre would also keep all parking and gate fees. The City would benefit through sales tax revenues in the park.
Carlise said Padre Dam began meeting with neighbors three years ago and has slowed the process to respond to concerns over parking, traffic, noise and biological impacts. “Many changes have occurred in the plans,” he said. “One thing we heard loud and clear was parking is a problem.” To alleviate concerns of residents who feared parking on their streets, Padre added more parking on the west side of the lake, agreed to move a picnic area and also add 20 free parking spaces just before the park gatehouse. “We also put in an agreement with the developer that folks riding the cableway will have their parking covered in their ticket, so there is no incentive for people to park outside the park.”
Carlilse said rumors that the park would include bleacher seating are false. “I don’t know where that came from. That was never the intent,” he said, adding that Padre rejected an earlier plan for a beach at Lake One, after determining it would draw too crowds too large for the neighborhood.
Residents also voice concerns that the cable ski operation would run from 8 a.m. to dusk, seven days a week.
Mayor Randy Voepel declined to be interviewed and referred our call to Vice Mayor Brian Jones. Jones said he initially had concerns over noise and traffic. “What I did was I went and looked at one of these in Texas. My opinion was changed as a result,” he noted. “They are not noisy. The crowds were under control. It’s very family-oriented. It seemed like it would fit in with our community,” he said, but added, “I still have a responsibility at the public hearing to take input from the public before I make a decision.”
Presently there are five cable ski parks in the U.S. (in Kansas, Florida and Texas) and about 100 in Europe. But Guadelupe “Lupe” Gillenberg, a neighbor opposed to the project, said she showed Jones a Google map of the area. “There is absolutely nothing surround the parks in Texas, Kansas and Florida,” she said. “The one in Santee is surrounded by thousands of houses…It’s not the machinery. It’s the throngs of people that are going to inundate our homes. They were touting this as attracting 5,000 people…There are tournaments they will have. People from all of the world will come to ski in my backyard.” Projected average daily usage is 100 to 150 riders, according to the Santee Lakes website.
Promoters estimate noise levels will not exceed 72 decibels (dB), a level deemed acceptable for recreational water use by Padre Dam, which approved the project unanimously about a year ago. But Lively cites a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Noise Effect Handbook, which says average community reaction at 60 decibels is slight to moderate, and just 2 dB below levels of “significant complaints and threats of legal action.” AT 75 dB, impacts on a community are “very severe”.
A noise survey conducted for this project found “it only took five kids to put out 72 decibels of noise over at mist park (an existing water playground at Santee Lakes),” Lively said. “Can you just imagine what 20 or 100 people will put out?” Several residents also voiced concerns over potential use of megaphones or amplified sound at competitions or other events. Lively noted that community noise can lead to negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and aggression, the World Health Organization has found.
The survey suggests trees in between the project and homes will serve as a noise barrier. But Lively countered, “We can hear the employees talking and even tell what radio station they are listening to now. This is on record with the City Council. The woman two doors down from me has complained about the trucks, the slam bam all day long from the utility yard, and they gave her ear plugs.”
Lively has sent a letter to the City’s principal planner stating that he believes the cable ski park would create a public nuisance under the California Civil Code. He proposed an alternate location for the activities. “Fanita Ranch plans on building a ten-acre lake,” he said of a planned residential community. “Why don’t they put it there, out of harm’s way?”
Some voiced doubts that the water would be safe for swimmers on wakeboards or water skis. Supporters say the lake would most likely have water from a well, but could have treated wastewater tested to assure safety for human contact. Others raise concern over alcohol to be served at the restaurant, citing narrow roads and potential for drunk-driving accidents or intoxicated cable-skiers.
Impacts on wildlife and the environment are also of concern.
“I feel it will change our whole ecosystem,” said Julie Naggar, an Audobon Society member who lives near Lake Four and enjoys bird-watching at the Lakes. “This side of Santee has one of the most diverse avian ecosystems….We get the migratory pelicans that come every November through April. I love watching them come in. I’m concerned about them getting hung up on the cables, or our owls at night.”
Cormorants and other birds nest on an island in Lake One, she noted. “They are going to completely destroy it,” she said.
Carlisle said destruction of freshwater riparian habitat could occur, but that if so, state law would require mitigation. That could include restoring habitat on another lake, or purchasing mitigation for land off-site.
Jim Peugh, conservation chair and board member of the San Diego Audobon Society, shares Naggar’s concern. “The EIR (environmental impact report) said there would be no impact on wildlife. We don’t think that’s true,” he told East County Magazine. “We think the operation will result in scaring birds away, so there will be less wildlife there, and also we think there will be some bird fatalities.” Egrets and some other large birds that frequent the lake tend to fly in straight lines and don’t maneuver well, he said. “They are apt to fly into the tow lines and the rigging.”
Peugh doesn’t believe reports from other cable ski parks that claim no significant impact on birds. Injured birds typically seek shelter in bushes, where foxes, cats or other predators find and eat them. He estimates that only one out of every eight to ten bird injuries is ever found or reported.
He also faulted Padre for clearing foliage from shorelines elsewere in Santee Lakes, eliminating bird habitat. “They say they did that for fishermen, but the fishermen we talked to were clustered around the vegetation that was left,” said Peugh, who wants Padre to provide habitat restoration at other lakes in the park as mitigation if the cable ski project is approved.
Gillenberg also accused Padre of inappropriately destroying habitat. “They have killed all the fish from Lake One already, “ she said. “They said it was an accident. I said `Yeah, right.’” She added, “All this time, the first lake is being sanitized. When I would walk the lakes I would walk into little bunny rabbits that were breeding in the reeds, trees everywhere; I used to go feed the ducks and birds…Now they took down every nesting area where the ducks could lay their eggs…Then just recently they tore down three or four huge beautiful palm trees. The island in the middle has been chopped down; it used to be all sorts of stuff for the animals to make their nests…They are preparing because they know that the City Council is going to approve it.”
The residents interviewed for this story said they felt adequate notice was not provided for some hearings and that outrage from those who live closest to the lakes has been ignored. “They are like mules with blinders,” Gillenberg complained, adding that the lakes are already profitable and money should not be the issue. I keep telling my neighbors, life as we know it is going to be over. It’s going to go from a peaceful place to a fun zone.”
Jones said adequate notice was provided, and that Santee normally goes beyond the minimum required by law.
When residents began organizing to oppose the project, Padre Dam sent a glowing description of the project and a survey to all of its customers, some as far away as Alpine. A substantial majority of those who responded indicated they would support a cable ski park at Santee Lakes.
But Gillenberg believes that is unjust. “They have no right to dictate the many against the few,” she said, adding that neighbors who live closest to the lake should make the decision, not people who don’t have to put up with any problems caused by a cable ski park.
Jones believes the project will be a good fit with the Trolley Center and with the new Town Center Park slated to open later this year, a 55-acre complex with tournament ball fields and an ampitheater. “We’re trying to do our best to promote Santee in a positive light,” he added. “This would be a nice compliment to get people to come into town, spend their shopping dollars here and help boost our economy.” He disputes residents’ concerns that approval is a done deal, and said he believes Council members will listen and weigh residents’ issues before making a decision.
For Lively and others, however, concerns remain. “I pray to God that this does not come to be, because we will be under siege 24/7,” he said, adding that he fears cars will line up during night-time or early-morning hours to be first in line for the cable ski facility if Council approves the project. “They are stealing from us that right that belongs to every one of us in the United States,” he concluded, “and that is the right to live in peace and tranquility.”