In the San Diego suburb of Santee, it's the old houses versus open space controversy — but with a twist.

In November, Santee voters will decide the fate of a 2,988-lot subdivision already approved by the City Council. The twist comes in the form of an advisory measure on the same special election ballot that asks if the City Council should try to buy the property as permanent open space.

The City Council approved the subdivision, golf course and hotel for the Fanita Ranch in May, but opponents of the development then qualified a referendum for the ballot.

The referendum on the City Council's action is standard-issue, which could allow the advisory measure placed on the ballot by the City Council to steal voters' attention. The measure asks whether the City Council should pursue purchasing the Fanita Ranch as permanent open space if voters reject the proposed development. The advisory measure says the land purchase could result in a tax increase of up to $150 per residential parcel. The exact amount and style of assessment would have to be decided later. Neither the developer nor project opponents supported the advisory measure because both fear the measure will cloud the referendum.

"This is certainly the largest project in the city's history, and the largest that we ever will experience," said City Development Services Director Doug Williford. The Fanita Ranch covers about one-quarter of the city and contains the majority of the remaining undeveloped property in the city of 57,000.

The fate of the 2,589-acre Fanita Ranch has been a topic of discussion for decades, with development proposals coming and going. All the while, residents of this community about 15 miles east of downtown San Diego used the site's rugged hills for hiking, mountain biking and even camping trips.

Now, the 19-year-old city is deeply divided. Robin Rierdan, of Preserve Wild Santee, the group behind the referendum, called the project "a betrayal of the general plan and a betrayal of the community."

But developer Bill Meyer of Terrabrook contended the project will provide needed homes, fund park upgrades and provide money for Highway 52 widening. "It provides a mix of housing products, from single-family attached to estate lots, so it will provide housing for a wide variety of income levels," Meyer said.

Williford characterized the homes as mostly upper-end models. But he pointed to the large number of concessions Terrabrook has made that benefit the city.

The specific plan, general plan amendment and tentative map approved by the City Council calls for 2,604 single family homes on lots ranging from 2,500 square feet to one acre, plus 384 multi-family units. The project also calls for a golf course and 100-room inn, and a 15-acre neighborhood commercial center. Development would occur over an eight- to 12-year period, with much of the 1,400-unit central village coming on line in the early stages, Meyer said.

Terrabrook would leave 1,259 acres — nearly half the site — as a habitat preserve with a public trail system, Williford explained. Also, the developer must: purchase 210 acres in the city of San Diego for additional habitat; pay a $22 million fee to Santee and provide $6 million worth of off-site park improvements before receiving building permits; and construct three parks, two elementary schools and a fire station. The city will use the $22 million for major projects, which potentially include additional lanes on Highway 52, park improvements, street upgrades and a new library, Williford said.

Although growth has its opponents in Santee, voters in November 1998 rejected a proposition that would have limited Fanita Ranch development to 1,277 homes. Rierdan, a project opponent and initiative supporter blamed the defeat of the Santee Traffic Relief Act on being outspent 40-to-1 by development interests.

Rierdan said many people had earlier assumed the Fanita Ranch would remain in its natural state because it was part of a Multi-Species Conservation Plan adopted about five years ago by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department. However, USF&W officials later approved a plan that allowed partial development of Fanita Ranch in exchange for preserving property elsewhere.

An additional 3,000 homes would compound Santee's existing circulation problem, Rierdan said. "Traffic is a huge issue in our community. It takes people hours to get to work. It's a huge issue on our surface streets in town, and it's a huge issue on our freeways," she said.

Meyer conceded that traffic is the biggest issue, but he contended that the project will ease highway congestion. A portion of the $22 million fee will leverage state funds and ensure a third lane is built on Highway 52 in each direction between Santee and Interstate 15, even though the Fanita Ranch will add only about 4 % more vehicles, he said.

"The bulk of the existing streets in Santee were built assuming a Fanita Ranch of 3,500 to 5,000 units, despite what the opponents might say," Meyer added.

Meyer said he appreciated the sentiment behind the advisory measure — a community must pay for its open space — but said he feared the measure could harm Fanita Ranch development at the polls.

"The concern I have with it is that voters get confused or get mad when they see something like that and they just vote ‘no' on everything," Meyer said.

Meyer said he is happy to have a special election in November for the referendum because he wants an answer as soon as possible.



Doug Williford, Santee Development Services Department, (619) 258-4100, ext. 170.

Robin Rierdan, Save Wild Santee, (619) 448-1779.

Bill Meyer, Terrabrook, (619) 455-1234.