Mayor Randy Voepel, Vice Mayor Brian Jones and Councilman Hal Ryan voted in favor, Council members Jack Dale and John Minto voted against controversial project
By Miriam Raftery
October 29, 2009 (Santee) – By a 3-2 vote, the Santee City Council voted last night to approve a major use permit for Sudweeks Development to construct a cable ski and wakeboarding facility at Santee Lakes. The project, previously approved by Padre Dam Municipal Water District, will operate seven days a week and also include a restaurant serving alcohol until 11 p.m.
The measure was approved despite strenuous and, at times, tearful objections from dozens of Santee residents and environmentalists.The developer and less than a half dozen supporters argued that the project will increase recreational opportunities in Santee, also boosting revenues for Padre Municipal Water District.
“I have an attorney. We are not done fighting this,” Santee resident Julie Naggar told East County Magazine, hinting that a class action lawsuit may be an option.
She added, “It seems like a misrepresentation to me. I believe their minds were made up two years ago.”
Neighbors voiced concerns that the development will change Lake One’s serene character by spoiling views, creating nuisance-level noise, putting wildlife at risk, and endangering safety of children.
Adrian Van Ravesteyn faulted Council for not him sending him a notice of the hearing. “I spoke last time and I live two blocks from the lake,” Ravestyn told East County Magazine. In his testimony, Ravesteyn told Council members he fears “cheering and drunkenness” at the amusement facility. “Why isn’t there a park like this at Lake Murray or Lake Jennings?” he asked. “Because most cities, even in hard times, won’t trade the quality of life of its citizen for the benefit of private developers.”
Padre Water District would reap a portion of profits from the facility, leading some residents to question whether water rates would go down if the project is a financial success. Others questioned who would foot the bill to remove the facility if it proves a financial boondoggle or if residents fears of a public nuisance prove true.
At an August 21 meeting where residents raised vocal concerns, Council asked the applicant to consider alternative locations, moving the restaurant to the North shore, and limiting alcohol to beer and wine only. But the developer maintains that those options are not feasible. The developer has agreed to limit crowd size to 500 at major events and some additional parking has been added.
Six speakers spoke in favor of the project, including the project architect, Augie Scalzitti, a director of Padre Dam Municipal Water District, and local residents. Twenty-five residents spoke against the project and another 22 registered opposition.
“I run into people at the grocery store and up and down the park. Pretty much all of them, maybe not all, are very excited about it,” Scalzitti attested, drawing jeers and groans from the crowd. “I think it will be good for the community.”
Santee resident Kevin Hippensteel attested, “I’ve actually ridden one of these and it was a lot of fun....It would be nice to have a restaurant overlooking the lake,” he said, adding that since San Vicente Reservoir closed down to skiers, there is “no place now to ski.” Area resident Danny Jack O’Brien also spoke in support, noting, “Allen Carlisle (director of Padre Dam Municipal Water District) is the person proposing this, and everything he has proposed turns to gold.”
Carlisle said the cable ski park will donate 30 hours a month of free time to school districts for physical education as well as some free time for disabled persons and discounts for Santee residents. Use of cable ski and wakeboarding facilities will cost $25 to $30 an hour initially, said Trevor Sudweeks of Sudweeks Development. He insisted, “This will be an attraction for the entire community” and a “world-class development.”
Councilman Dale expressed skepticism that not many Santee residents could afford such hefty fees, and suggested the developer was appealing mostly to outside interests. He also voiced concerns over drinking, noting , “That would be a grand concern if this were in my backyard.”
Larry Sillman, from the project’s architectural firm, Sillman & Wright, tried to allay concerns over visual blight. He said residents “are not going to see it at all” from their backyards, assuming residents have solid six foot fences. Those with non-solid fences would be viewing the project through landscaping, he said.
Santee resident Ranelle Peterson observed, “It’s a one-story restaurant, but it’s 21-feet high.”
Others noted that the towers holding cables will be 36 feet tall, higher than a three-story building.
Patricia O’Keefe shared those concerns and more. “For me, the noise is going to be horrible no matter what. I’m up on a knoll and I can see the whole lake. I have a teenage daughter. At night I leave my windows open and lights on…I’m worried about men drinking and looking at my daughter.”
Councilmember Dale acknowledged, “It’s clear that people are going to see this thing.” He also expressed concern over the City’s potential liability if someone should be injured at the facility. “If something terrible does happen, everybody’s going to get named,” he said, adding that he wants to push to have the City added as an insured party.
Nancy Hauser represented a Santee homeowners’ association. “Our community vehemently opposes this,” she said, adding that the group fears “nonstop screaming and shrieking” 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to dusk in the midst of a residential neighborhood. “This is like putting in a pig farm. It’s just odious.”
Carlisle acknowledged that some complaints have been received about existing noise in the park, such as mobile DJs or bands at events, and that efforts have been made to reposition bands to reduce noise. The Mayor noted that no megaphones will be allowed at the new facility.
Joyce Seyfert said that at a meeting of neighbors closest to the park, “Only one owner near the lake was in favor. The rest were recruited by Sudweeks to come in from outside.”
A poll taken by Padre Dam reportedly showed a majority of water district customers favoring the project, however critics note that many live as far away as Alpine and would not feel the impacts of neighbors living close to the project.
An online poll by East County Magazine found that of approximately 150 who voted, 78% opposed the cable ski park, while 22% supported.
Janet Covell , a retiree who walks frequently in the park, expressed concern over the impact on wildlife. She asked why the developer’s report on wildlife impacts only addressed March through December. “The peak season is November to March,” she said, noting that the Audobon Society’s annual bird count takes place in February. “I’ve identified over 90 species of birds at the lake,” she said, adding that she has spotted rare birds on the island in Lake One.
Betsy Rudlee, spokesperson for the Audubon Society, said the Society only recently learned that the restaurant plans to stay open until 11 p.m. “Given this new information,” she said, “we urge that a new study be done to assess activity of a night time bar, night time noise and activities on bird activities.” She asked that a report be done by a certified wildlife biologist, noting that many birds roost on the island at night. She suggested using night vision equipment to study current night bird activity with a simulation of the noise projected to be generated by the project. She also confirmed that she has seen many birds on the island, including a green heron last week.
Although staff acknowledged that no night time study of bird activity has been done, Council ignored the recommendation.
Sudweeks acknowledged that he has never built a cable ski park, but repeatedly tried to allay residents’ concerns over safety and other issues, insisting that lifeguards and appropriate safety equipment will be present. He noted that cable ski parks in Texas and Kansas have good safety records.
But Naggar countered, “I called up other ski parks.” She said age limits for use is 12 and up. (Sudweeks plans to allow children 6 and up to use its facility). Waivers must be signed by a parent or guardian, she noted, adding that there is no alcohol served at the other parks. “This park sits half a mile from two elementary schools,” said Nagger, who like many residents voiced concerns over drinking and driving. She also raised worries over noise, noting that she is already bothered by frequent noise including live music from weddings and banquets at the park. “Lake One should be preserved, not destroyed,” she concluded.
Brian Mattes observed that the developer insists that a restaurant with full liquor license is an integral component to the project’s success. “If the alcohol is what they’re talking about, then it’s really not kid-centric,” he said.
Voice quavering with emotion, Amanda Togubat told Council members that she fears the effects of alcohol on drivers at the lake. “I had a car go through my house after the new entrance was added. That was one of my fears,” she said, adding that her opposition to moving the entrance was not heeded.
Guadalupe Gillenberg said she attended a La Mesa Council hearing the night before, where La Mesa voted to extend its ban on alcohol to all public places without a special permit. She quoted a La Mesa resident who complained of picking up beer cans in the yard of her home near a skate park. “How can you in good conscience want to add a bar in the middle of a residential area?” she asked. “It’s downright irresponsible.” She also termed the acoustic report, which finds the facility would be within 50 decibel limits, “watered down.”
Donna Rudford noted that other cities are banning alcohol in public places. “Why would we want to be the only ones who welcome it?” she asked. Mayor Voepel clarified that Santee is “one of the few to allow drinking in parks” with the exception of Mast Park.
But when he asked Captain Patricia Duke from the Santee Sheriff’s Substation about the issue, she replied, “We don’t presently have a problem with public drinking at the parks because our parks close at dusk.” About 230 DUI (driving under the influence) cases are written up each year in Santee, she added.
The Mayor insisted that drunk driving laws will continue to be rigorously enforced in Santee. "If you drive drunk in Santee, you're going to get nailed," he warned.
Susan Gottschalk predicted the facility will be a “major nuisance” and asked who will pay to take it down if it’s not a financial success. John Lively, another resident, said he also believes it will meet the state’s legal standard for a public nuisance.
Stephanie Rutledge cited concern over a potential increase in crime and vandalism in her neighborhood.
Others voiced concerns that the project would lower their property values.
Sudweeks insisted the cable ski park would be a benefit to neighbors. “It’s good for the community and environmentally friendly,” he said. “Is it really so bad to have an upscale restaurant there on a beautiful lake that people can come and enjoy?” He noted that 600,000 people come to Santee Lakes annually, with some events such as Santa at the Lakes and the Easter Egg hunt drawing several thousand people. “Is it so bad if people want to come here from around the world?” His remarks drew repeated taunts from the crowd, prompting him to repeatedly ask for “respect” while speaking.
Gary Gillenberg testified, “A city government just does not ignore the rights of its citizens to enjoy a peaceful life.” He added that he fears the initial project proposal is merely a “stepping stone for a full-blown water wonderland complete with slides and a Ferris wheel,” then asked Council to protect the rights of citizens and “not cater to special interests.”
Councilman Jones cautioned the developer not to come back to Council with proposals for Ferris Wheels or other amusement park additions, noting, “If you come back, we will kick the camel in the nose.”
A tip posted at East County Magazine’s last article on the proposed cable ski park stated that Jones has received significant sums of money from proponents of the project. ECM has requested campaign donation records for all members of the Council and the Mayor and will report on our findings when documents are made available. We have found that Jones, who ran for Congress in 2008, received $750 in contributions from John T. Sudweeks of Sudweeks Development and $500 from Allen Carlisle at Padre Municipal Water District for his failed Congressional bid.
Council member Minto said her personally would like to see an upscale restaurant on the lake and believes fears about alcohol are overly emotional, noting that Santee has closed down two establishments that had alcohol-related problems. But he added, “I am concerned about parking. I am concerned about noise…When this was zoned, there was no overlay for commercial other than what’s there now.” Addressing audience members, he added that he has taken a long time to reach his decision. “I have listened hard,” he said before voting against the project.
Council member Ryan, who voted in favor likened residents’ concerns to those raised about noise in debate over building a bridge across the lake and a new fire station in the neighborhood. “Those things have worked out well,” he said. “I’m still not convinced that this is a huge viable money-making thing.” But he expressed support for having a diversity of activities in Santee, particularly for young people.
Emotions were mixed following the meeting, with the vast majority in attendance expressing disappointment. One dismayed resident said of Council members who supported the project, “I won’t be voting for these guys again.”
Richard Hutchings, a 48-year resident of Santee, echoed that sentiment. Hutchings said he has benefitted from emergency services and fears traffic gridlock could prevent fire trucks at a station near the park entrance from reaching people in need. He noted the words “Fire Administration” on the building, and suggested, “That might be an action to take against those who do not represent us.”