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Conservationists Challenge Barratt’s 1,380-Home Project in Santee

A trio of conservation groups recently challenged Santee’s approval of Fanita Ranch, the largest residential development proposal approved by the City Council. Their lawsuit follows Santee’s Dec. 5 approval of an environmental impact report and preliminary project plans submitted by Carlsbad-based homebuilder Barratt American Inc.

Plans approved unanimously by the Santee City Council include 1,412 acres of open space preserve and 1,380 single-family detached homes, 15 live/work lots, eight commercial lots, and a proposed fire station on 1,188 acres. The single-family homes would be in four residential neighborhoods: Sage Hill, Oak View, Sycamore Glen and Rock Point.

In addition to the preserve, Fanita Ranch plans include 60 acres of city-managed park space and another 149 acres of park space to be maintained by a homeowners’ association.

The lawsuit, which contends the project violates the California Environmental Quality Act guidelines, was filed Jan. 4 by the Center for Biological Diversity, Endangered Habitats League and Preserve Wild Santee. The suit alleges the city failed to eliminate or reduce environmentally sensitive aspects of the project that they say could potentially cause serious impacts to people and wildlife.

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CEQA requires developers to submit environmental impact reports to be reviewed by area residents and approved by local municipalities. The EIR identifies environmental impacts of the proposed development and possible alternatives and mitigation efforts.

The three environmental groups claim the city approved the project despite grave concerns expressed by citizens and several organizations, including the petitioners. Concerns include environmental and fire safety impacts, the adequacy of review of these impacts in the EIR, and adequacy of measures to reduce these impacts on the largest undeveloped open space in the city.

Mick Pattinson, Barratt American chief executive officer and principal, said the legal challenge filed in San Diego Superior Court has no merit.

“We believe the issues raised have been addressed in the various environmental impact reports and design of the community, but that doesn’t mean to say we won’t have to spend large sums of money in legal fees and face delays, pay interest on our loans and property taxes,” said Pattinson.

Pattinson called CEQA a litigant’s and environmentalist’s dream that needs reform.

“The project has the wholehearted support of the community, the wholehearted support of the leaders in the community,” Pattinson said. “A project that has been heavily scrutinized, a project that is needed in the community and deserves to go forward should not go through expensive delays.”


‘Standard Challenge’

Attorney Shawn Hagerty, managing partner of the San Diego office of Best Best & Krieger, said the complaint is a standard challenge under the CEQA guidelines.

“In my view it is a very generic complaint,” said Hagerty, who serves as general counsel for Santee. “It is a CEQA challenge that could be filed against any project in California.”

Hagerty anticipates the lawsuit will be addressed in court this fall. He pointed out that even if the court upholds Santee’s approval, the petitioners could appeal the decision.

Santee City Manager Keith Till said he was not surprised by the challenge.

“This type of challenge has been attempted before, most recently with the Sky Ranch project,” said Till. “In fact, both lawsuits are financed by the same organization (the Center for Biological Diversity) headquartered in another state.”

Till said the city expects to prevail with Fanita Ranch, just as it did with Sky Ranch, a Lennar Corp. master-planned community atop Rattlesnake Mountain in Santee.

“As usual, the plaintiffs claim the EIR was inadequate and hope to cause delays and raise the costs of the project, which ultimately are passed on to the homebuyers,” said Till. “The EIR is voluminous, extremely thorough and entirely adequate in our view.”

John Buse, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., disagreed with the city and Barratt American. Buse said the city failed to use due care in approving this massive development. He noted concerns of fire safety, water supply and distribution of houses.

“We feel the city failed to consider some of the comments indicating that it was not a good design and there were better alternatives possible for fire safety and for the natural resources on-site,” said Buse. “The city charged ahead with the project in its chosen configuration.”


Critical Habitat

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation group, reported that most of Fanita Ranch is designated as critical habitat for the California Gnatcatcher, a small bird identified as a threatened species by the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Habitats League, an organization devoted to sustainable land use planning in Southern California and the preservation of its native species and ecosystems, reported that the proposed development is not consistent with the wildlife and habitat protection goals of San Diego’s Multiple Species Conservation Program Plan.

“This highly fragmented project design does not meet Multiple Species Conservation Plan conservation standards,” said Michael Beck, the San Diego director of Endangered Habitats League.

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