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.
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