Santee Citizens Halt Fanita Ranch — Public Vote Expected

by on October 31, 2020 · 2 comments

in Environment, San Diego

Santee citizens’ group celebrates outside Clerk’s office.

By Colleen Cochran

A few weeks ago, despite the fact that many Santee citizens and citizens throughout San Diego County cried out in opposition to development in Santee’s pristine Fanita Hills, four Santee City Council members voted to approve an obscenely large testament to urban sprawl, a development called Fanita Ranch.

Those city council members, whose elections have been heavily funded by developer HomeFed, used a series of deceptive maneuvers in order to preclude citizens from having a say in whether Fanita Ranch would be built. Only Santee City Councilman Stephen Houlahan voted against Fanita Ranch, and he is the only council member who never accepts developer dollars.

Santee citizens did not take the council decision lying down. While HomeFed Vice President Jeff O’Connor and the four council members Rob McNelis, Laura Koval, Ronn Hall, and Mayor John Minto were gloating over their win, a band of Santee citizens dedicated to the well-being of their city were calculating how to turn the tables. They devised a referendum petition that would overturn the council’s decision and would instead grant citizens’ final approval authority over whether Fanita Ranch can be built.

Van Collinsworth, Director of Preserve Wild, was the mastermind behind the referendum petition. For nearly three decades, he has been crafting strategies to thwart developer reign and enable Santee citizens to maintain control over their own city. It was through his leadership that citizens were able to fight and defeat two other large development plans formerly slated to be built in Santee’s Fanita Hills.

The citizen troops responsible for collecting signatures for the referendum petition were steadfast and tireless. Some of them were regularly stationed at tables set up in front of ally businesses, such as the GTM store and Mary’s Donuts. Others walked the streets of Santee and knocked on resident doors.

Collecting petition signatures was not work for the faint of heart, for enemy forces were unceasingly trying to combat their efforts. The phrase “enemy forces” is not being used offhandedly.

HomeFed hired a crew of thuggish petition blockers who stalked the citizens who were circulating petitions at residences. These blockers then used all sorts of tactics to prevent citizens from reaching front doors. One petition circulator said that the petition blockers seemed to be supervised by “handlers,” people who sat in cars, let the blockers out to pull their stunts, and then quickly whisked the blockers away once their deeds had been accomplished.

The petition blockers who encircled the signature tables in front of stores used ploys like playing loud music, jeering, and outright physically impeding would-be signers from reaching the tables. These blockers were constantly videotaping the citizens while trying to rouse from them angry responses. The citizen signature gatherers were scared but undeterred.

On Thursday afternoon, October 29, 2020, Collinsworth dropped off at the Santee City Clerk’s Office the stack of signatures the citizen troops had collected. The next two hours were likely misery for the city staff charged with counting the signatures. The citizen crew had far exceeded the 3,584 signature requirement necessary to get the referendum on the 2022 ballot.

The citizens who gathered outside the city clerk’s office for the petition delivery erupted with cheers with an announcement that over 6,000 signatures would be submitted. Van Collinsworth, Councilman Houlahan, and Samm Hurst, a contender in the November City Council race, offered them speeches of praise. Hurst told them, “You have saved Santee.” The City Clerk acknowledged 6,303 signatures by official receipt!

The Santee citizens who collected the signatures and the thousands who signed the petition were from both sides of the political aisle. They possessed various motivations for their desires to overturn the council’s decision. Concerns included the placement of Fanita Ranch in an area CAL FIRE designated a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, fifteen years of construction noise and dust, increases in traffic, obstructed views, depletion of wildlife, and climate change. The one creed they all seemed to share was a sense that decisions about building in Santee should not be made by developers and the city council members they funded; those decisions should be made by the citizens of Santee.

The assumption for Santee’s future going forward is that HomeFed members, now forced to halt the bulldozers, will have to sit on their hands until November of 2022, which is when the Fanita Ranch referendum is expected to be on the ballot, although the developer could pay for a special election to move up citizen decision-making. In either event, Santee citizens will vote on whether they choose to build the project. Unfortunately for HomeFed, no matter when the citizens vote, it is appears unlikely most Santee residents will reverse their stance against the development project.

It is possible that HomeFed and some city council members will attempt last-ditch efforts to invalidate the referendum petition. Petition circulators speculate they might devise an underhanded scheme to have signatures declared invalid or HomeFed may doctor the many videos petition blockers shot and then will use the videos as “evidence” for some outlandish claims.

Councilman Houlahan stated he is confident that the referendum petition will be on the ballot in 2022 and the citizens will have their opportunity to vote on the project. The final nails in the coffin for out-of-state developers who may attempt to build in Santee against the will of the people will be passage of Measures N and Q. A majority “yes” vote on Measure N will put in place an ordinance requiring citizen approval for city council development actions that are outside the bounds of the Santee General Plan. A “yes” vote on Measure Q puts in place term limits of three terms on the offices of mayor or city council member. To date, HomeFed has spent at least $500,000 trying to defeat Measure N, and it is likely some of those funds were used to pay referendum petition blocker fees.

Councilman Houlahan, who is running for Santee Mayor, said, “We’ll get N, we’ll get Q, we’ll have a final vote on Fanita Ranch, and after that things will be set right. When I’m mayor and Samm is on the city council, we are going to start leading this city in the right direction…for the people.”

Colleen Cochran, JD, is a legal editor, nature enthusiast, San Diego County resident, and warrior against climate change.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nora M October 31, 2020 at 3:15 pm

YES! If developers want to make a profit at the expense of the residents, get an approval from the residents.


Sharon Tooley November 2, 2020 at 12:17 pm

Very happy Preserve Wild Santee is working to educate citizens as to how to preserve their rights and the environment. The referendum IS the answer. Developers pay for their cronies to be elected and then vote for them to build! It’s necessary to stop them legally.

The type of resistance to the collection of signatures for the referendum shows just who these people are. Thugs. Bullies.

Great work Santee. Stand united and defeat the developers!! Preserve Wild Santee!!!


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