By Mike Allen
February 10, 2020 (Santee) -- Santee Councilman Stephen Houlahan wants a larger say in molding the city’s future and has declared his intention to run for mayor, opposing incumbent Mayor John Minto.
Houlahan says the main issue motivating him to throw his hat into the ring is the disturbing trend by a majority of his Council colleagues to consistently undermine Santee’s General Plan and approve higher density projects.
One of the organizers of an initiative to stop land use changes without a public vote, Houlahan asserts he’s not anti-growth, but wants developers to adhere to the rules contained in the existing General Plan.
“My intent is to bring democracy back to Santee,” Houlahan told ECM. “The initiative is not anti-growth. All it’s asking is that (new projects) stick to the Santee General Plan and if they don’t, then bring it to the people in democratic process.”
In 2018, backers of the Santee General Plan Protection Initiative delivered more than 4,000 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. But the Santee Council voted 4-1to prepare a study on the initiative’s impacts, with Houlahan opposed. The study took 60 days to produce, which prevented the initiative from getting on the ballot that year and delayed the vote until November 2020.
Houlahan says the majority of the Council have the city’s priorities all wrong. Instead of focusing on bringing in more housing to the city, elected officials should be thinking of creating more parks and open space. Under the current General Plan, Santee already has sufficient parcels zoned for residential to meet the city’s needs for new housing through 2050, Houlahan says.
He adds that in recent years because of zoning changes which have mostly increased densities to accommodate larger housing projects, Santee’s local roads have been overwhelmed, causing gridlock.
The Santee City Council is facing a decision on the Fanita Ranch housing project. Developer HomeFed Corp. has submitted a plan for the 2,600 acre site to build nearly 3,000 houses, making it by far the largest residential project in the city’s history.
If voters approve the General Plan Protection Initiative, they would likely have the right to vote on Fanita Ranch, because the current proposal is much denser than the current plan allows.
Houlahan declined to say whether he will oppose or support HomeFed’s plan, saying that if the Initiative passes, local voters will decide on its merits. However he states that the project would create significant risks if a major wildfire like the 2003 Cedar Fire occurs.
Asked what his main accomplishments have been during his four years on the council, Houlahan listed help getting the Initiative qualified for the ballot. That move essentially stopped the practice of increasing densities on properties because developers weren’t certain what would happen, he says.
He also cites the repaving of Mast Boulevard, reconstruction of Mast Park, the Santee Sustainable Action Plan, and the intent to form a community choice aggregation program (CCA) with other cities to give citizens an alternative to SDG&E for purchasing renewable energy.
A 46-year old senior specialist nursing educator with Sharp Health Care, Houlahan was a key player in stopping the Quail Brush power plant that was planned at Mission Trails Park on the boundary of Santee, prior to running for the Council. He was elected in November 2016, beating out two contenders, Mason Herron and Dustin Trotter. Trotter, a local contractor, is again running for the District 4 seat now held by Houlahan, which Houlahan must vacate to run for mayor since both seats are on the ballot this fall.
Asked about the prospect of running against Houlahan, Minto, a retired San Diego detective, states, “Stephen has some good ideas. I just think I have better ideas.”