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By Mike Allen

Photo from left to right: Councilman Ronn Hall, Councilwoman Laura Koval, Vice
Mayor Rob McNelis, Mayor John Minto, Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Councilman Stephen Houlahan and son Stephen Dakota Houlahan.

December 5, 2018 (Santee) -- Santee’s Mast Park, the city’s oldest and most used park, is getting a facelift that will retain current features but create some new amenities intended to make it even more family-friendly.

The nearly 50-year old park, where city leaders and other government officials gathered Dec. 4 for a ceremonial groundbreaking, was due for an upgrade; plans to do so have been on the books since 2011.

Mayor John Minto said the lag time was due to the city’s strategy of getting all the necessary funds in place before construction begins.

“The bottom line is that no (local) tax dollars were used for this project except money raised over the years paid by developer fees,” Minto said. “No general fund money was used.”

The cost for the project comes in at $11.7 million, including about $9.7 million for construction, and some $2 million on costs for design and engineering. Some $2.5 million was obtained through state and local grants.

A sizable chunk of the budget, some $3.3 million, was provided by the San Diego River Conservancy, an independent regulatory agency that gets most of its funding from the state of California.

The renovation, which will take about a year to complete and result in the park’s closure in the interim, includes the replacement of the basketball court, a playground, the restroom, and a nine-hole disk golf course. It also adds new trails for walkers and bicyclists, increases the picnic shelters to three, has a more defined dog walking area, adds parking, increases lighting, and includes a total revamp of the park’s landscaping.

“We’ll have more than 7,000 different types of trees, shrubs and plants here once we’re done,” said Bill Maertz, Santee’s Community Services director. “We’re keeping most of the sycamore trees and oaks, but we’ll be installing new ones.”

The plan calls for using some of the larger dead trees and repurposing them for an innovative storm water drainage system aimed at filtering out debris that drains into the river after heavy rains. “This is really a two-for-one project,” said Terry Rogers, Santee management analyst. “We’re trying to protect the river from trash and pollution while enhancing the park’s amenities at the same time.”

Among the features that were retained, and improved is the disk golf course, something that concerned heavy disk duffer Larry Flynn of Santee.

“I did 45 holes this morning, or five rounds,” Flynn said, adding it took him about four hours. “I did it because I knew I wasn’t going to able to come back for a year.”

Flynn, who has played disk golf throughout the Western states, rates the Santee course pretty high. “I love this course. I don’t have to expend any [money for] gas, and I don’t have to spend any time in traffic to get here.”

Near the center of the park will be an enlarged dog walking area with three separate fields for larger and smaller dogs, as well as puppies. Another new feature that will certainly please residents will be a concession stand near a picnic area and the golf course. The stand could become a place for socializing, and may even include craft beer on its menu, said Maertz.

The park renovation will also create much better trails that parallel the river and connect with other key river enhancement projects on either side of Santee, Lakeside to the east and San Diego to the west, said Councilman Stephen Houlahan.

“I’m overjoyed for this renovation,” Houlahan said. “This is the reason I got on the Council, to see projects like this one go through.”

Mast Park is also part of a 52-mile trail system that makes up the San Diego River Park stretching from Julian in the Cuyamaca Mountains to Ocean Beach. The state has been working with cities and counties where the river flows, providing some of the funding to pay for the improvements.

Among the elected officials attending the ceremony was County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who noted that the county Board of Supervisors contributed $186,271 to the project, not just the $186,000 mentioned by Minto in his speech.

Minto acknowledged the oversight and retorted that the city “won’t be giving it back.”

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