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Referendum on Fanita Ranch leads to tense moments

Posted at 5:19 PM, Oct 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-14 21:53:34-04

SANTEE — A group of Santee residents trying to gather enough signatures to force a public vote on the recently approved Fanita Ranch development say they are facing intimidation from the developer.

Meanwhile, the developer says the signature gatherers are the ones acting unethically.

The Santee group, called Preserve Wild Santee, has until election day to gather signatures from 3,500 registered city voters to force the Santee City Council to either rescind approval of the development, or send it to a public vote.

On Sept. 23, the council voted 4-1 to approve the project, which calls for roughly 3,000 new homes, 80,000 square-feet of retail space, a school, a farm and public trails. Proponents say the project would provide homes to help with the county's severe housing crisis, while opponents say it would create too much traffic and increase wildfire danger.

The homes would start in the $400,000s and could be available as soon as mid-2022.

"We're for reasonable growth and in the right places and in the right locations, not in an extreme fire hazard location," said Santee resident Janet Garvin, one of the signature gatherers.

Garvin said, however, that people who come to sign the forms are being heckled by a project supportes, funded by developer HomeFed. On Monday, Santee Councilman Stephen Houlahan, the lone no-vote on the project, confronted HomeFed's workers on camera at a strip mall.

"It seemed like a very, very strong coincidence that there was two women volunteering here, and they were surrounded by three men in a very intimidating posture," he said.

Houlahan also said the HomeFed workers have also promised to follow signature gatherers across Santee to try to stop them from getting more supporters.

But Jeff O'Connor, vice president of HomeFed, stood by the workers. He said they have been respectful, and are there to correct misinformation he says the signature gatherers about the project - namely about the improvements promised to Highway 52, and when it comes to tax increases. While there could be a Melo Roos fee on homeowners, O'Connor said there will be no tax increase on the general Santee population.

"They're being professional, they're getting the facts out, they're being courteous," he said. "The other said is doing almost the exact opposite."

O'Connor said HomeFed believes the project would pass a public vote, if it came to that.