This piece originally appeared in the Sept. 21, 2020, edition of the O.B. Rag.
By Colleen Cochran
Over the past few decades, natural open spaces within 20 miles of the San Diego County coast have been largely devoured by development. The city of Santee's majestic northern Fanita Hills, a 2,600-acre region, has remained intact, although it has been under a land-use siege throughout this period. Santee's city council seats, which hold the authority to control the destiny of Fanita Hills, have been magnets for building industry contributions, and the windfall of political dollars has created sharp division between Santee residents and their elected officials on the question of whether to develop or conserve the region.
While Santee City Council members might have enabled citizens to weigh in on potential building projects, most of them deviously plotted to squash citizens' participation. Their goal, in particular, has been to prevent citizens from attaining the power to oppose Fanita Ranch, a massive 3,000-unit housing development slated to be built in the Fanita Hills. The development will encompass an area a quarter of the size of existent Santee. Only Councilman Stephen Houlahan has not worked to quell citizens' voices. In fact, he sponsored an initiative that would grant them a say in Santee's development processes.
On Sept. 23, 2020, the majority of Santee City Council members will likely vote to approve an amendment to the city's general plan that will enable Fanita Ranch to be built, despite the fact that many of their citizens oppose the project. Approval of Fanita Ranch will prove disastrous not only for Santee but for all of San Diego County. Construction of the behemoth development will annihilate endangered species, ravage the environment, create a deadly fire trap, ensnarl traffic within Santee and on its connected highways, and it will forever deplete the tenor and quality of life throughout San Diego County.
In hopes of wooing citizens, HomeFed Corporation, the developer, has touted the project's flaccid benefits. Namely, the company has claimed it will, out of sheer benevolence, tack on improvements to Highway 52, it will set up the city for receipt of future tax revenue, and as it cheerily noted on its Facebook page, it will provide a "town green" that will be "the perfect spot to grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat."
The company that plans to add 8,000 residents, 15 percent of Santee's present population, to the virgin Fanita Hills, asserts environmental stewardship has been at the forefront of its considerations. To prove it, Jeff O'Connor, HomeFed Vice President of Community Development, has been handing out bottled waters to bikers and hikers on the Stowe Trail and reminding them that if Fanita Ranch is not built, the company has every right to close off the section of trail that crosses into HomeFed's property.
Few Santee residents have been swayed by HomeFed's arguments. They have raised their voices at city council meetings, they submitted numerous opposition letters, and many of them posted "More Houses More Traffic" signs on their front lawns. In addition to Santee residents, environmentalists, fire experts, and citizens throughout the county have added their voices in opposition to the development project.
Santee Residents Have Been Fighting Fanita Ranch Development Projects for Decades
Residents of Santee have been fighting, and defeating, proposed Fanita Ranch construction projects for nearly three decades.
In 1999, they stopped a 2,988-unit project through a referendum sponsored by the local environmental organization Preserve Wild Santee. Two-thirds of the electorate voted against that project.
In 2007, after a 1,395-unit project had been proposed and the city council had certified the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR), Preserve Wild Santee and others brought suit against the project applicant Barratt American and the city. The California Superior Court ruled against the project on fire safety issues. When the EIR was revised, the San Diego Superior Court again struck down the council's certification based on fire safety issues. The city and a new developer appealed. The California Court of Appeal confirmed the Superior Court ruling on fire safety, and it determined the project EIR was also deficient on biological resource and water supply issues.
The real estate crash and recession of 2008 changed the political landscape as the courts considered the case against Barratt American. This homebuilder was highly leveraged to the point of bankruptcy and it soon became a willing seller. Environmentalists then initiated the process of acquiring Fanita Ranch so as to retain it as open space linking Mission Trails Regional Park to Sycamore Canyon. Funding was to come from public conservation sources and the U.S. Department of Defense. The Department of Defense would cover 50 percent of acquisition costs through its REPI "Buffer Program," a program available to protect the open space surrounding the western boundary of the 20,000-acre Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar from encroachment.
The city of Santee, however, effectively vetoed the environmentalists' bacquisition, which left Barratt American bankrupt and all of its lien holders, including Santee, which had outstanding liens against Barratt American totaling over $1 million, wiped out in a foreclosure auction. In 2011, through the auction process, noteholder Westbrook cleaned the title of the liens. Westbrook had offered the land to environmentalists for $20 million, but it offered the land to fellow developer HomeFed Corporation at a discounted rate. HomeFed acquired the 2,600-acre Fanita Hills region for about $12 million.
HomeFed's Formula for Hooking the Santee City Council
The citizens' history of opposition to decimation of their northern hills might have dissuaded HomeFed from the purchase, had the company not held confidence in its ability to cultivate a cozy relationship with the Santee City Council. To maintain that relationship and to ensure a steady team of allies, HomeFed, and other developers and Political Action Committees (PACs) related to the building industry, funded the campaigns of city council candidates. In short, they purchased amendments to the Santee General Plan.
Santee code does not permit PACs to contribute directly to candidates. A research team of Santee citizens recently charted a money laundering web that shows how some political contributions went directly from developers to city council member committee accounts. More contributions went through a number of PAC accounts before benefiting council member campaigns. Only Councilman Stephen Houlahan has not accepted developer funding.
The research teams' web chart shows, for instance, that in 2018, the Building Industry Association of San Diego gave $20,000 to the San Diego County Deputy Sheriffs' Association. That same year, the Deputy Sheriffs' Association directly spent $2,000 to elect incumbent Councilman Ronn Hall and spent over $2,000 on the elections of incumbent Councilman Rob McNelis and the winner of an open seat race, Laura Koval. In 2020, HomeFed's Jeff O'Connor made several contributions to Santee City Council candidate Dustin Trotter, a candidate whose opposition, Samm Hurst, has refused developer contributions.
PAC organizations have funded other PACs. For instance, the Building Industry Association directly funded Public Safety Advocates. It funded, as well, the Deputy Sheriffs' Association, which, in turn, funded Public Safety Advocates. Public Safety Advocates is the organization that was outed for creating deceptive campaign slate mailers directed toward voters on each side of Santee’s partisan aisle. These campaign materials sufficiently veiled candidates' pro-developer positions so that many Santee voters were tricked into believing the candidates supported their interests.
Some contributions to PACs cannot, without investigation by an enforcement authority, be proven to have directly flowed from developers, but the contributions certainly smell fishy. For instance, the Deputy Sheriffs' Association has, without disclosure of funding sources, unitemized receipts amounting to over $700,000 since June of 2016.
Interestingly, HomeFed has had nothing to say about the fact that council members who were likely to vote to amend the general plan to allow for Fanita Ranch were the very same ones who had been accepting developer campaign dollars. The company did, however, find it egregious that Councilman Houlahan might vote "no" on the amendment. The company asserted that because he rejected developer contributions and was outspoken in his support for the idea that citizens should be entitled to vote on whether Fanita Ranch is built, he must have planned to vote "no" on the construction project ahead of having reviewed the project documents. Based on this speculation, HomeFed looked into how it could legally exclude Houlahan from voting.
Throttling the Citizens' Vote on Fanita Ranch
Citizens’ best plan for protecting their city from Fanita Ranch sprawl was initiated months after HomeFed submitted its application to build the gargantuan development. Van Collinsworth, Director of Preserve Wild Santee, and Councilman Houlahan sponsored a Santee General Plan Protection Initiative that would require a citizen vote if the Santee City Council amended the general plan to allow for larger development projects outside that plan’s stated zoning parameters.
The citizens quickly gathered enough signatures to get the protection initiative on the 2018 ballot. The city council could have then outright adopted the initiative or it could have put the measure on the 2018 ballot, which would have likely resulted in a citizen majority voting "yes" on the initiative. Instead, the city council, under the guise of needing to study the initiative issue more, avoided the constituents’ request, and in the meantime, it processed HomeFed's application to build Fanita Ranch.
Said Van Collinsworth who attended the city council meeting in which the study was determined to be the best plan of action, "These people try to portray themselves as being fiscally conservative, but during that hearing there wasn’t even a word mentioned about the cost of the study. There was no question they were going to move that thing off the ballot by having a study, no matter what it cost."
The council hired London Moeder Advisors for $40,000, a firm which unsurprisingly determined that Fanita Ranch was necessary to the economic health of Santee. The real estate advisors made this decision, despite the fact that the city of Santee, under current zoning guidelines, already has an annual recurring surplus of $3.76 million. It also concluded that Santee will likely have a shortage of 1,820 residential units by 2050, and of course, building Fanita Ranch would be best way to prevent that future occurrence.
HomeFed, commenting after London Moeder’s economic impact report was released, stated, "If the initiative is passed, it will be much more difficult to amend the city's general plan to address shifts in the economy or meet the community’s pressing needs." In other words, only the developers' bedfellows on the city council, and not the citizens themselves, could be trusted to make decisions for Santee.
The study proved to be the perfect stall tactic causing the general plan protection initiative, Measure N, to be moved to the November 2020 ballot. HomeFed consultants then worked feverishly with city staff in an attempt to bullet proof a Revised Environmental Impact Report for the Fanita Ranch project so that Santee City Council members could approve the general plan amendment prior to the citizens' November vote.
Fanita Ranch Spells Fire, Traffic, and Wildlife Extinction
HomeFed has painted Fanita Ranch as the project that will save Santee. Only, Santee has never needed saving, and Fanita Ranch will likely be its downfall. One of the biggest dangers of the project relates to fire safety. The development will be built in hills that CAL FIRE designated a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, in the precise area that was incinerated by the 2003 Cedar Fire. The complex will provide only two routes by which residents can arrive at or depart from their homes, via Fanita Parkway or Cuyamaca Street. Both of these thoroughfares lead to Mast Boulevard, a street that will become gridlocked should residents throughout Santee need to flee an inferno.
HomeFed had planned to create a Magnolia Avenue extension that would curve to meet Cuyamaca Street and thus would provide residents with an additional route for evacuation during fire, albeit residents would still end up logjammed on Mast Boulevard. HomeFed states it nixed the Magnolia Street extension, ostensibly because the company decided that funds set aside for it would be put to better use if added to the Highway 52 improvement fund. The more pressing reason the extension was scrapped was because the company discovered the extension presented a potential conflict of interest for Councilman Rob McNelis which would preclude him from voting for Fanita Ranch. The precise nature of the conflict has not been revealed.
Fanita Ranch will also introduce more traffic. HomeFed has been cosplaying as Santee’s super hero by offering to add lanes to the on-ramp of SR-52 and to streets within Santee. HomeFed, in reality, is like a villain who swoops in to save the day. Because the company will be adding 8,000 new residents to Santee, who en masse will generate over 25,000 vehicle trips per day, the road enhancements simply provide an ineffective fix for a problem HomeFed will create.
Fanita Ranch will destroy the home of 21 species of mammals, 21 types of reptiles and amphibians, and over 100 bird species. The expanse of terrain ranges from heights of 400 to 1,200 feet and, thus, contains a variety of specialized habitats, including chaparral and vernal ponds, that many animals depend upon in order to survive. The Fanita Hills are one of the last remaining havens for Quino checkerspot butterflies, San Diego fairy shrimp, and the least Bell’s vireo songbird. These three creatures are listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Fanita Ranch Vote Takes Place Wednesday, Sept. 23
On Sept. 23, 2020, the Santee City Council is set to win its battle against its own citizens. Most of its members will likely vote to approve Fanita Ranch, ahead of the citizens' November vote on the general plan protection initiative. Unless, the citizens can pull off a hat trick of upset victories, the plan is for a parade of bull dozers to start rolling into the city. For the next 15 years, which is the amount of time it will take to complete the monstrous building project, residents will endure construction noise, dusty air, and watch their lovely hills get graded and turned into a master-planned atrocity.
To sign up to observe the meeting or to submit a live public comment, go to the City of Santee website and click on the Agendas/Minutes tab.
Colleen Cochran, JD, is a legal editor, nature enthusiast, San Diego County resident, and warrior against climate change.
By Mia Taylor
As California finds itself amid another devastating and tragic wildfire season, there's perhaps no more timely or critical environmental topic than the logging of our National Forests, which the Trump administration has been actively encouraging and fast-tracking past long-standing environmental review, and all under the discredited guise of wildfire suppression.
Earlier this month our club hosted an Environmental Report featuring presentations from the staff of the Central Coast-based Los Padres Forest Watch (LPFW), an organization quite literally on the front lines of this issue in California.
The evening's program featured a particularly powerful and enlightening presentation from LPFW conservation director Bryant Baker, who revealed that logging practices occurring on National Forest lands are often far more environmentally destructive than helpful, with the work being done primarily for the benefit of the commercial timber business, not the public or the environment. What's more, in the wake of such logging, forests are often left more vulnerable to wildfire than they were before. This scenario just played itself out, again, with the catastrophic wildfires to the north in Oregon.
And in what should come as no surprise, such corrupt, misguided and environmentally devastating practices are occurring more frequently under the Trump administration and their appointees.
While large-scale logging of old-growth and mature forest was largely discontinued in National Forests in the Pacific Northwest following the science-guided and Clinton administration-brokered Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the four Southern California National Forests (Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, San Bernardino) were generally left out of the those considerations due to their lack of overwhelming stands of marketable timber. Unfortunately, under Trump, large diameter trees are once again being cut en masse by the Forest Service throughout the west, and with the least amount of environmental oversight and review since the "bad old days" of the federal timber-cutting frenzy of the late 1980s.
"We're seeing this a lot. It's only getting more intense under the Trump administration, and it's getting more brazen," Bryant Baker explained.
The Forest Service's current "forest thinning" proposal in the Pine Mountain area in the Los Padres National Forest is just one example of the devastation and corruption wrought by increased logging efforts, fueled by the breathless urgency to pointlessly destroy habitat and cut the most mature, fire-resistant trees "before the next wildfire occurs."
At Pine Mountain, the Forest Service is proposing logging and chaparral removal on some 755 acres of land made up of a mixture of old-growth conifer stands of Jeffrey and Coulter pine and ancient White fir. Located near Mount Pinos and the recreation sites and trails of the popular Frazier Park area, Pine Mountain includes a diverse array of Southern California ecosystems in which both healthy and dead trees, called snags, would be cut as part of this proposed project using heavy equipment ranging from masticators to chainsaws. The agency has made it clear a commercial logging or timber sale is likely.
"The Forest Service has acknowledged they're looking at a commercial timber sale to do this," said Baker. "This is what we're increasingly concerned with on these types of projects. They're really aimed at trying to remove certain size trees that are marketable and can be a source of revenue either for a private company that comes in and does the work, or as a direct timber sale where the Forest Service would sell the timber and keep the money for revenue."
The Forest Service has established a handful of limits for the project with regard to tree cutting at Pine Mountain, based upon tree diameter. The first is it will remove trees less than "24 inches" in diameter.
In other words, the Forest Service will allow, without any questions asked, the removal of any trees that are less than two feet in diameter. In selecting that measurement, the Forest Service is relegating to an old public relations trick of making trees seem smaller than they actually are, and that these removals are inconsequential. But that couldn't be further from reality.
Even to a casual observer the 23½ inch tree seen here is hardly small or inconsequential. "This is what the agency is calling a small tree," explained Baker. "We disagree. We do not believe this is something that can be categorized as a small tree, but the agency is essentially telling the public they're only going to be removing small trees."
What's more, a 24-inch tree, as Baker explained, just happens to be a size that commercial timber mills welcome because they tend to be very straight, non-damaged trees. For a timber warrior like club co-founder Tommy Hough, who worked on logging issues with the National Forest Protection Alliance in Seattle in 2001 and as a staff member with Oregon Wild from 2012 to 2014, the similarities to arguments the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Managment (BLM), and Big Timber use to justify logging in the Pacific Northwest are all too familiar.
"The Forest Service still operates on the antiquated 1930s concept of 'multiple use,' and sawmills are still largely equipped to work with large diameter trees," said Tommy. "The timber industry never really bit at the idea of selectively removing smaller-diameter trees out of plantation forests because their mills simply aren't equipped to work with them other than grinding them into mulch."
The second parameter for the Pine Mountain project is that the Forest Service will remove trees up to 64 inches in diameter. Again, the brutal reality of what this means needs to be put in perspective visually for it to be truly understood. The photo here is merely of a 53-inch tree, not even the full 64 inches being proposed.
"The Forest Service is saying it can remove trees up to 64 inches for very vague reasons," said Bryant. "For safety reasons or if the tree is impacted by any dwarf mistletoe. But safety is undefined. They don't really talk about what that means. We've seen this before in other National Forests and other projects and these types of stipulations get abused because they're so vague."
According to Tommy, "Big Timber wants to sell 2 x 4s to China, and both Republican and Democratic administrations typically want to enable that. So they look for reasons to go cut big trees, wherever they may be accessible, even though the older the tree the more fire-resistant it is because of its thicker bark. Go walk in any mature forest and you'll see plenty of burn scars on older trees."
Lastly, the Forest Service will allow trees impacted by dwarf mistletoe to be removed. The devastation of this stipulation truly needs to be put into perspective. Dwarf mistletoe, as Bryant explained, is an important native plant species that occurs in these forests naturally. It’s an important component of mixed conifer forests, Ponderosa and Pine forests. It serves a vital ecological function and increases avian diversity.
Furthermore, most trees in the Pine Mountain area have some amount of dwarf mistletoe. Translation: When you also include the stipulation that trees with dwarf mistletoe growth can be removed, the Forest Service is allowing the cutting of all trees that are present in the project area – with no real or substantial limits at all.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of these so-called fire suppression projects is the way the U.S. Forest Service has been directed to circumvent the typical review process. Using the cover of what's known as a Categorical Exclusion, the Forest Service can proceed on a project without even providing an Environmental Impact Statement or an Environmental Review. Past examples of Categorical Exclusion logging projects are disturbing at best. The before and after images below are of a similar project in Plumas National Forest in Northern California, which was conducted using the same justifications and language as the Pine Mountain project, demonstrate the vast devastation.
The first image is an area the Forest Service claimed was too dense. The agency suggested that if a fire came through it would destroy the forest and put communities at risk. The removal of biomass, the agency said, was essential and would be ecologically beneficial. The second photo, which shows the heartbreaking aftermath of such efforts. It speaks volumes about the environmental destruction that took place.
"This is not a low impact activity," said Bryant. "This is extremely soil disturbing. This was all done for commercial timber sale. They said this was for forest health and to protect communities. This was a backcountry project that was nowhere near communities and we're seeing this all over California."
Finally, it must be understood that these projects do not necessarily aid in wildfire suppression. In fact, they have the exact opposite result. According to Bryant, "You'll find a lot of non-native grasses in these really disturbed areas, which only make fire more likely and make fire spread more quickly. What we're finding is that often in these really heavily managed areas where they're doing a lot of this logging under the guise of fire mitigation it may actually be making fires worse."
According to Tommy, "Caifornia does a great deal to protect communities from earthquakes, but we need to approach wildfire and climate change with the same level of science-based seriousness."
Given the pressing need for action on this issue, we've provided some immediate resources and further action opportunities.
Because of the importance of the issue and the devastation that's occurring, we will also announce the date of a workshop where you can learn more about how to get involved and make a difference on this critical environmental challenge.
Photos and graphics courtesy of Bryant Baker and Los Padres Forest Watch
Banner photo by Tommy Hough
By Mia Taylor and Tommy Hough
Click here for the Zoom link for Wednesday's meeting.
As we head into the final weeks of the 2020 campaign, we realize it may be difficult to think about anything other than the November election and the threat of Trump, the GOP, and foreign powers manipulating the outcome of the most critical presidential race in our nation's history. It's a nervous, stressful time.
Keep calm by volunteering and making phone calls for your candidates and campaigns of choice as we notice several items, including bylaw changes and endorsements for our September Club Meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 16, beginning at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom (we'll post the Zoom link shortly). Also, be sure to check out the video from our Environmental Report on Sept. 10th with Los Padres Forest Watch on logging at Pine Mountain.
One of the most pressing items our club will address on Wednesday involves two proposed changes to our bylaws, both of which are key components to members' eligibility to vote on club matters. We'll vote on both of the proposed language changes outlined below at our meeting on the 16th, including:
Article IV – Section (v) – Voting
"A member in good standing who has attended at least one prior meeting two prior general membership meetings over the previous twelve (12) months or and has paid dues at least 34 days prior to the meeting or at the previous general membership meeting, shall be eligible to vote for club officer elections and club endorsements."
Appendix A: – Section (i)
"To be eligible to vote for an endorsement of a candidate or a ballot measure a member must be a member in good standing, must have paid their dues at least 34 days prior to the endorsement meeting, or have at least attended one previous scheduled club meeting and have attended at least two prior general membership meetings over the previous twelve (12) months."
Also at our Sept. 16 club meeting, four candidates for office will be considered for our club's endorsement. In alphabetical order:
In addition, we're pleased to welcome San Diego Coastkeeper executive director Matt O'Malley as our special guest for the evening, as we discuss our region's relationship with water, including the potential for new concrete channel infrastructure near our coast to collect stormwater runoff before it reaches the beach in a toxified state.
We'll discuss with Matt the San Diego County Water Authority's megalomaniacal, fossil fuel-heavy proposal to build a pipeline across the Cleveland National Forest (!) and beneath the Cuyamaca Mountains (!!) in a project that would take over 120 years to pay for because the water authority can't come to a deal with the Metropolitan Water District. According to Voice of San Diego, "It could be the most expensive public works project in San Diego history."
Click here for the Zoom link.
We'll begin checking in and credentialing club members at 6 p.m. The meeting will come to order at 6:30 p.m.
By Tommy Hough
Register now for Thursday's Environmental Report with our guests from Los Padres Forest Watch via this Zoom link.
When Donald Trump won the presidency on an electoral college misfire after losing the popular vote in 2016, his administration rolled into office with a breathtaking lack of self-consciousness, and immediately set about behaving as though it had won a mandate in a landslide win by dismantling not only the Obama legacy, but the nation's environmental legacy too.
Despite California having a reputation for being a "bastion" against the Trump administration's destructive agenda, Trump has a clear pathway into California via our federal public lands, which are imperiled today like no other time in our state's history.
Fracking and Logging on Federal Public Lands on the Central Coast
Thursday, Sept. 10, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for the Zoom meeting link
Oil exploration notoriously expanded in the state under Gov. Jerry Brown, even as he led the fight against climate change, but fracking has increased under the watch of Gov. Gavin Newsom since his administration signed new regulations on the practice into law, and despite calls from environmental advocates in San Diego and around the state to ban fracking and phase out fossil fuels altogether. One would think this wouldn't be the heavy lift it is for our Democratic supermajority in Sacramento.
While Newsom enforced a brief pause in issuing new fracking permits late last year, permitting resumed this summer, and the governor's willingness to increase the number of fracking leases may have emboldened the Trump administration to move forward with a terrible plan to open federal public lands in the Central Valley and Central Coast to more oil and gas drilling, including fracking, with 37 new wells announced by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2019. This was followed by administration's unprecedented move this spring to open Carrizo Plain National Monument to oil and gas exploration – thereby undoing the very purpose of establishing the monument in 2001. I previously wrote about this desecration of Carrizo Plain in June.
Similarly, the Trump administration has called on western states to log more acres of National Forests under the discredited guise of fire suppression, including the current proposal to log the mature forest along Pine Mountain ridge near Mount Pinos in the San Emigdio Mountains west of the Grapevine in the Los Padres National Forest. Federal officials have similarly threatened logging at Giant Sequoia National Monument across the San Joauquin Valley in the Sierra Nevada, in a move amazingly supported by the monument's own hometown Tulare County Board of Supervisors.
While we may have beaten the Trump administration on the Cadiz water project and the attempt to subvert Mojave Trails National Monument, there are dozens of other fronts in the state where Trump's anti-environmental agenda is quickly advancing, and will only become worse should the president be re-elected in November.
We'll discuss the Trump administration's specific anti-environmental intrusions into California's federal public lands at Carrizo Plain and Pine Mountain in the form of fracking, oil exploration, and logging at our next Environmental Report on Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 6:30 p.m., featuring our special guests from Los Padres ForestWatch, including executive director Jeff Kuyper and conservation director Bryant Baker.
Access the Zoom link for the meeting here, and at our Facebook event page.
The blog component of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action welcomes content from SDCDEA members, guests and leadership.