By COLLEEN COCHRAN
Recently, the threat of bulldozers spurred me to take a hike in northern Santee. The Stowe Trail — a stretch that leads from Santee Lakes through Sycamore Canyon on Fanita Ranch — is one of the last havens for endangered Quino checkerspot butterflies, creatures that once fluttered abundantly throughout San Diego County skies, and for endangered least Bell’s vireo songbirds.
Because I had been hearing a lot of news about HomeFed Corporation’s plans to ravage the area by constructing Fanita Ranch, a development of 3,000 units of multistory townhouse boxes, I decided I better go on that hike before it becomes too late.
The Fanita Hills, as the region is sometimes called, is home to coyotes, mountain lions, gray fox, and 18 other mammal species, 21 types of reptiles and amphibians, and over 100 bird species. Van Collinsworth, director of PreserveWildSantee.org, describes the region as a step back in time because deep into the Stowe Trail there isn’t a trace of anything manmade in sight, save the occasional flying airplane. There are precious vernal pools there, which are rare because 98 percent of them have been destroyed due to San Diego County development. Within them live some of the last remaining San Diego fairy shrimp.
If HomeFed’s Fanita Ranch development is built, the sleepy northern end of Fanita Parkway, where Santee Lakes Campground is located, will be turned from two lanes into four, two in each direction, with a raised strip in the middle. The speed limit will be raised from 40 to 50 mph, although I very much doubt drivers will be able to reach that top speed most hours of the day, since the only ways in and out of the Fanita Ranch complex will be via Fanita Parkway or Cuyamaca Street, and there will be 8,000 residents, an additional 15 percent of Santee’s present population, using those roads. More likely, these new Santee residents will be spending a good portion of their days idling in their cars as they wait to cross over or onto Mast Boulevard.
Construction noise will replace the chirps and buzzes of nature’s creatures, so Santee Lakes Campground will become a far less enticing destination. In its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), HomeFed promised to mitigate construction noise by putting in place a sound barrier wall. Campers will, however, still be left with fumes, dust, and loss of views of greenery, and they will no doubt still hear the construction noise too.
The construction, which will go on for 15 years, will leave present Santee residents enduring streams of trucks going through their area, endless noise, and dusty air. Air quality won’t just be reduced during construction, it will be reduced forever. In the end, citizens will have lost the lovely natural barrier that gave their city its hometown feel, only to have it replaced with hunks of walls, gates, parking lots, and unsightly clone houses.
All citizens throughout San Diego County will be negatively impacted by the development. Because the Fanita Ranch area is an essential biological reservoir linking adjacent open spaces protected by the county’s Multiple Species Conservation Program, users of Mission Trails Park can expect to see a depletion in wildlife. Vistas throughout the region will be destroyed, air quality will worsen, and traffic will increase.
Traffic on Mast Boulevard, already the stuff of commuters’ nightmares, will become horrific. The impact of this traffic will be felt on West Hills Parkway and Mission Gorge Road, all the way down through Allied Gardens and Grantville. HomeFed promises to add an extra lane at the Mast entrance to SR-52, but that remedy will not prove apt to counteract the load of traffic that is going to infect that highway. Some commuters will seek relief by using the I-8, so traffic will worsen on that highway as well.
Santee City Council member Stephen Houlahan and Van Collinsworth of PreserveWildSantee.org have put together the General Plan Protection Initiative that would enable citizens to vote on whether they want Fanita Ranch, a project that vastly exceeds size parameters set forth in the Santee General Plan. Unfortunately the Santee City Council, most of whose members are more beholden to the Building Industry Association than their own citizens, used a “study” to delay the Initiative vote from 2018 until November of 2020, thus providing opportunity for a contested “approval” of the megaproject ahead of the Initiative vote.
Santee citizens are fighting city council’s underhanded scheme, and citizens throughout the county can join them in their efforts by sending emails that voice their concerns about Fanita Ranch. Their letters will go on the record, potentially reviewed by a judge, should the situation evolve into a court battle. While county residents are waiting to hear the results of their efforts, I suggest they take a walk along Stowe Trail. If HomeFed has its way, one day soon, the trail will be transformed to noisy suburban sprawl.
Send comments to Chris Jacobs, Principal Planner City of Santee, at email@example.com.
— Colleen Cochran, JD, is a legal editor, nature enthusiast, and warrior against climate change.