By Ana Nita
December 11, 2018 (Santee) -- The battle over the Fanita Ranch urban development proposal in Santee entered a new phase once the City of Santee scheduled the scooping meeting at the end of November to gather public input on a revamped proposal.
The land occupies a quarter of the city on the northwest side, close to the Mission TrailsRegional Park and the military base at Miramar. Developers, local politicians, environmental activists and local residents fought for the past 36 years over whether tohave the area approved for housing or restore it as a nature preserve. The City of Santee approved the proposal for urban development in 2007, but lost in court when challenged over failure to address water supply and fire safety issues.
The land went into foreclosure few years later and a Carlsbad-based corporation, HomeFed, acquired the property for $11 million and started drawing maps and roads seeking public approval for its project, which at that time included only 1,380 housing units, a big step down from the original plan for 14,000 homes.
In 2017, a politically-charged year before the midterm elections, HomeFed came up with a new plan to build 2,949 homes on 2,650 acres, allowing 1,600 acres of open space (75% of the site) for public trails. The change in the project would require a change in the General Plan.
Local residents objected to the city council voting on such projects without public input. Therefore, the people of Santee gathered enough signatures to have a proposal requiring a public vote on projects that exceed the scope of Santee’s general plan included on the ballot for the 2018 midterm election. But the public initiative was blocked by the City Council, which voted to delay putting the measure on the ballot until 2020 and proposed instead a $40,000 feasibility study just weeks before the elections.
The Fanita Ranch project was a hot subject in local political debates, engaging candidates competing to grab the three out of four available seats on the City Council on the issue. Laura Koval, who ran for District 3 (and won), and Vice Mayor Rob McNellis were the only candidates undecided about Fanita Ranch, while all the others opposed itincluding Zack Gianino, who helped circulate the petition. None of the candidates opposed to the project won election to the Council.
Incumbent Councilman Stephen Houlahan teamed up with Van Collinsworth of Preserve Wild Santee, a local non-profit group. Dedicated to preserving open space in the city. Houlahan and Collinsworth claimed last month on the group’s site that, “A flood of developer dollars are backing incumbents/status-quo candidates (McNelis, Hall & Koval) in this City Council election. The dark money backing for these candidates show that this election is about resident versus developer control of city government and the ability to approve the massive Fanita Ranch project. “
Despite the opposition, HomeFed managed to move ahead with the project. During the scooping meeting organized by the city of Santee on November 29, Director of Operations Jeff O’Connor promised to solve two major issues facing Santee at this time: the budget deficit and the traffic issues, mainly on Highway 52 and Mast Blvd. “ We are the first developers who are gonna tackle the traffic head on. We will build a new lane on each direction on 52 and that’s’ gonna create four times the capacity for what we are gonnause,” said O’Connor, adding, “ It’s gonna get better.” O’Connor promised, “We will have all these increments before the residents move in. If we don’t get traffic improved, we won’t get the project done.”
HomeFed is planning to build one 35-acres large park along with 15 smaller parks for the low and middle density housing units. A privately owned farm will provide fresh produce to the Fanita Ranch inhabitants. A K-8 school will be build next to an “active adults” community designed to offer homes for senior citizens.
O’Connor said, “This is gonna be a self-sustained community, all the homes are gonna have solar on the roofs and sometimes we will supplement it with a solar farm.” Asked to answer the public concerns about the environment and trails, O’Connor said, “ If we build our project, we will build all these phenomenal trails that will be open to everyone, not just the people in Santee. If we don’t get to build, all of this is gonna be closed down and nobody would be able to use it. “
Answering concerns about fire safety, O’Connor said, “We are gonna have a very extensive fire plan, so it’s gonna be one of the safest community in San Diego. All the homes are gonna be built with fire resistant materials.” O’Connor explained, “ We only need one lane in and out on Fanita Parkway and Cuyamaca, but will have two lanes in theout direction in case there’s an emergency, so the traffic will be able to get out faster. “
Van Collinworth with Preserve Wild Santee sued and won in the past to stop this project. His main objections are related to the traffic, environment, fire safety and water use.
“We just saw a community being wiped off the map, “ said Collinsworth referring to the recent fire in Paradise, California. He warned, “That should be a message; we need to do better in terms of land use and we certainly need to do a lot better in terms of greenhouse gas. The better ways to do this is what I’ve been saying for 25 years; let’s preserve this land.“
Santee resident Justin Schlaefli is also concerned about the traffic, but likes the overall plan. He said, “I think looking at the site plan in all, it would be an exciting place to live. They will have a lot of nice features that would be cool to visit.” Schlaefli listed “the village center and the agriculture, some exciting restaurants and places to go” among his favorite items on the map and said he’s welcoming HomeFed to Santee.
“This scooping meeting is the initial step in doing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project, “said John O’Donnell, Principal Planner with the City of Santee Development Services, the lead agency who will complete the EIR. O’Donnell estimated, “The EIR will probably be done by the end of 2019.”
Collinsworth indicated he fears Santee Council members may vote on final approval of the project along with modification of the General Plan way before the next elections in 2020.
However, during the campaign McNelis told ECM in a radio interview, “I absolutely am in favor of the citizens of Santee having their own vote on this.” Koval, too, assured in her pre-election interview, “I want the voters to have a voice on Fanita Ranch,” she says. “Let the voters decide in 2020.”
Collinsworth fears this is a premeditated plan to stop the people of Santee to vote on the Fanita Ranch project. Asked about his organization’s next step, he said, “If approved, what are we going to do? What we’ve done in the past - referendum, litigation.”