By Mike Allen
September 24, 2020 (Sante) -- By a 4-1 majority, the Santee City Council approved the controversial Fanita Ranch development that will add nearly 3,000 homes and about 8,000 residents to a city that has been fighting over the project for most of its 40-year history.
The vote came shortly after midnight Sept. 24 following a mind-numbing, six-hour session that was broadcast online with each of the five elected officials casting their votes from their homes due to the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. According to the city, 312 viewers watched the marathon session, the longest in Santee history. Councilman Stephen Houlahan cast the sole no vote.
In a single vote covering eight separate legal actions, the Council provided all the necessary approvals that developer HomeFed Corp has been seeking since 2017 when the San Marcos-based company submitted its plan for some 2,400 acres of rolling hills in the city’s northeast quadrant.
Councilman Ronn Hall said giving approval for the project was preferable to denying it because HomeFed could then return with a plan for potentially more than 4,000 units, yet without any benefits to the city.
“I’m kind of in a Catch 22 on this,” Hall said. “Do I really want to turn this down and lose everything we have, or do I want to take it reluctantly and at least get something out of it, and we are getting something out of it.”
Among the biggest ‘somethings’ Hall referred to was HomeFed’s promise to fund improvements to State Route 52 to relieve traffic congestion, and have those fixes done before any new homeowners move in.
Other perks the city stood to lose if it rejected the plan was a new fire station at the site, a new school, accessible open space with new parks and trails that made up about two-thirds of the land, a working farm and vineyard, a solar energy plant, and a varied stock of move-up housing.
On a net revenue basis, Santee would gain an estimated $1.4 million annually from taxes after the city pays for all the expenses associated with the project, according to the developer’s presentation.
Because the development already has the legal right to build 1,380 units (from the prior Barrett American ownership approvals), HomeFed could legally build those units. Along with state-sanctioned allowance for two more granny flats per unit, that would result in another 2,760 units, and bring the total number to 4,140 units, Hall said.
“That’s my concern. They could come in and build more units, and we get nothing out of it,” Hall said.
Councilman Rob McNelis, who made the motion to approve the project, asserted the Fanita Ranch specific plan requires that the developer complete all the infrastructure improvements, including all of the Highway 52 fixes, before the city issues occupancy permits on the first houses. “If they can’t get it done they’ll never be able to sell one home in the development,” he said.
Photo, right: Historical photo of Fanita Ranch courtesy of city of Santee.
McNelis summarized his lengthy speech saying, “The traffic issues will be greatly resolved with a project like this.”
Neither McNelis nor Councilwoman Laura Koval responded to charges of broken promises to put Fanita Ranch to a public vote they made in 2018 taped interviews with East County Magazine. Had they voted to give residents a say, that could have scuttled the project, but probably only temporarily due to HomeFed’s property rights.
A slim majority, or 25 of the 49 speakers weighing in at the public hearing portion of the meeting, urged the Council to vote against Fanita Ranch. Most argued building housing in an area prone to wildfires will endanger lives, as well as eliminate the natural habitat of dozens of plant and animals, including several endangered species.
Some speakers questioned the ethics of those four Councilmembers who accepted political contributions from the developer or other real estate interests tied to the project, which irrevocably tainted their objectivity.
“This reeks of a backroom deal that everyone is in on except the citizens of Santee,” said Gloria Gerak.
Houlahan, who was elected in 2016 on a slow growth platform and doesn’t accept any money from developers,csaid while accepting campaign contributions from entities with projects coming for council approval may be legal, the optics of the process is horrible.
“It almost reeks of suppression that we’re trying to get this through before Nov. 3,” said Houlahan about the timing of the project’s vote that prevents residents from weighing in on Fanita Ranch.
Santee’s ballot includes a General Plan Initiative called Measure N which would require any proposed development that doesn’t conform to the current plan to go to a vote. Fanita Ranch would have triggered a vote because of its much higher density than allowed in an earlier version.
Both Mayor John Minto and Councilwoman Koval wanted to make sure that HomeFed’s recent change to exclude an extension of Magnolia Avenue from the project would not threaten residents in the event of a wildfire evacuation. Fire Chief John Garlow and consultant Mike Huff assured Councilmembers that change wouldn’t impact evacuation times, and that technology improvements have made evacuations far safer than in the past.
HomeFed decided to exclude building the extension to the project last month, saying it wanted to use the $5 million budgeted for the road extension for improvements to Highway 52 because most residents said traffic congestion was their main concern about the new housing.
The developer also said by eliminating the extension from the project it would permit McNelis, who owns property near Magnolia Avenue, to vote on the project and eliminate a possible conflict of interest causing his recusal.
Houlahan and other speakers said the change should have required the city to revise its environmental impact report (EIR), and conduct another public comment period so all parties could weigh in on the changes. That would have certainly caused the project to be delayed until after the elections. If Measure N passes, then Fanita Ranch would have required a public vote for approval.
Houlahan made a motion to delay the vote until after the elections, but it died when no one seconded the motion.
Minto said when he first talked with HomeFed about Fanita Ranch he wanted to ensure three key factors were adequately addressed in the EIR: traffic, environmental mitigation, and ensuring that a fire protection plan would keep the community safe, and pass any court challenge.
The earlier approved specific plan for Fanita Ranch under Barrett American for 1,380 units was successfully challenged by environmental groups because of the plan’s inadequate fire protection plan. Minto said he asked staffers to be sure the proposed HomeFed plan withstood any legal challenges, but it’s unclear if those additional mitigation measures will be sufficient to fend off lawsuits. McNelis said during the meeting the plan will certainly be challenged in the courts.
McNelis lauded the EIR, and HomeFed for all the fire prevention plans it promised to do, including conducting brush clearing from the surrounding area, and using a variety of burn inhibiting materials in the construction. “This makes the area safer for our citizens than it currently is,” he said.
But Houlahan cautioned that in the event of a mass evacuation, without the Magnolia extension, many people could be stuck in “a Conga line, unable to leave.”
“The elimination of that potential evacuation route troubles me,” he said.
Ironically, with the final vote 4-1, HomeFed could have kept the Magnolia extension as an alternate evacuation route and likely pushed through approval without McNelis present.
According to the EIR, HomeFed said it could begin construction of Fanita Ranch by the summer of 2021, with a phased build out occurring over 10-15 years.
Tonight, Van Collinsworth, head of Preserve Wild Santee, issued ths statement: "Preserve Wild Santee intends to challenge the council action and give the people of Santee the opportunity to decide their own destiny. Campaign contributions document the council is biased toward the developer that helped elect them."
Collinsworth says the public has 30 days to circulate a petition and get signatures from 10% of voters, giving voters the opportunity to overturn the elected officials' decision.
Mike Allen writes about government agencies and other topics for East County Magazine, mainly covering the Santee City Council. Among the newspapers he’s written for are the San Diego Business Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, the Vista Press, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He has won numerous journalism awards including a fellowship to the Stonier School of Banking by the American Bankers Association while employed as a financial reporter.
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