By Mike Allen
January 15, 2021 (Santee) -- Santee residents will get a chance to vote on the Fanita Ranch project, but will have to wait until November 2022 to do so.
At its Jan. 13 meeting, the Santee City Council voted 4-0, with Mayor John Minto absent, to place the controversial 3,000-unit residential development on the next regularly scheduled city election rather than rescinding its earlier approval vote for the project or setting a special election. According to the county Registrar of Voters, a special election would cost the city about $850,000.
This wasn’t what the Council originally intended. In September the board approved a slew of amendments to the Fanita Ranch Specific Plan and approved the project in a 4-1 vote, with former Councilman Stephen Houlahan opposed.
The timing of the vote was purposeful. By approving the project ahead of the scheduled Nov. 3 vote on Measure N, the Council was trying to avoid any possible public plebiscite on Fanita Ranch. Measure N, which passed by about a four percent margin. Measure N requires any project that does not comply with the existing General Plan to go to a public vote.
But it was unclear whether it would apply retroactively to Fanita Ranch. So the Council’s approval of the project prompted an immediate response by project opponents in the form of a citizens' petition to force a public vote on overturning the Council’s approval. To qualify, opponents had to gather a minimum of 3,584 valid signatures, or 10 percent of the city’s 35,000 voters.
The opponents of Fanita Ranch, led by environmental political advocacy group Preserve Wild Santee, made certain that threshold was met and delivered about 6,200 signatures to the City Clerk’s office, with about a week left on the 30-day deadline allotted to collect the signatures.
Following certification of the signatures to qualify for a vote by the county Registrar of Voters on Dec. 15, the city was forced to decide what path to take.
The Council attached a provision in the option it approved to set the election for November 2022. It calls for an investigation into allegations of fraudulent activity on the part of signature gatherers. City Attorney Shawn Hagerty said the budget for such an investigation will not be significant.
Supporters of Fanita Ranch provided the city with evidence of a signature solicitor who knowingly pressured a minor to sign another voter’s name. The incident was captured via a security system and detailed in a complaint filed by the Sutton Law Firm against the La Jolla Group, which was hired by Fanita Ranch opponents to collect signatures.
Proponents said the incident was an anomaly, and ignores the fact that the gatherers obtained nearly twice the number of valid signatures needed to qualify. Many citizens, upon hearing of the referendum, sought to find out where they could sign once they heard it was for letting them vote on the Fanita Ranch project.
“There was no coercion necessary,” said resident Michele Perchez. “People were trying to find the petition after we already turned in the signatures.”
They also noted that petition gatherers were routinely being intimidated by hired election workers paid by Fanita Ranch developer HomeFed Corp., which spent more than $300,000 to oppose Measure N and support the candidacies of Minto and newly elected Councilman Dustin Trotter, a building contractor.
HomeFed has poured many more thousands of dollars into an ongoing marketing campaign for Fanita Ranch, as well as promising to make extensive improvements to Highway 52 and connecting roads in advance of selling any of the project’s houses. It is unclear what the San Marcos-based developer will do given the specific plan is now suspended for about two years. Attempts to get answers from Santee’s development department were unsuccessful.
In other actions, the Council unanimously approved a program to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in Santee that includes a citywide assessment “to get an sense of the community’s understanding of DEI and to also collect information that can be used to create a written set of community values,” according to a presentation made by an ad-hoc subcommittee of the city Community Oriented Policing Committee (COMPOC).
The program would also include a series of town hall meetings “to learn about and engage in a safe, healthy, respectful, and meaningful dialogue on racial, social, and economic justice and other topics related to DEI.”
The program has been under development for months following a series of protests in June by Black Lives Matter groups, and counter protesters, some of which resulted in assaults and other violent incidents in Santee. City leaders said they needed to do a better job of listening to minority residents and their complaints of veiled and outright racism in the city.