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San Diego Union-Tribune, November 8, 2008

Fanita Ranch housing doesn't have a start date
By Michele Clock, Union-Tribune staff writer

SANTEE – A major Santee housing development is on hold due to the sagging economy and a lawsuit contending it wasn't properly approved.

Construction on the nearly 1,400-home Fanita Ranch housing development, the largest in city history, was expected to begin as early as this summer and take 10 years to complete.

But now, Carlsbad-based developer Barratt American says it doesn't know when homes will be built on the 2,600-acre project site.

“We don't have any clear date but we're certainly not giving up,” said Nick Arthur, who is overseeing the project for Barratt American.

Fanita Ranch developments

Approved: After years of controversy, the Santee City Council in December 2007 approved a new plan calling for nearly 1,400 homes at Fanita Ranch, which was expected to increase the city's population by at least 7 percent.

Court challenge: A coalition of environmental groups in January filed suit against the city, arguing it violated state environmental law and its general plan by not fully analyzing the project's effects.

Project delayed: Nick Arthur, who is overseeing the project for developer Barratt American, says the project is on hold due to the sagging economy and the legal challenge.

Arthur said the weak real estate and credit markets are factors in the delay. The project also encountered a new legal setback this week when a San Diego Superior Court judge issued a ruling questioning whether the city of Santee took adequate steps to ensure fire safety at Fanita Ranch.

Exactly how the finding will affect the project is not yet known.

The ruling came as part of a case filed in January by environmental groups, including Preserve Wild Santee, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Endangered Habitats League. The suit contends that Santee violated state environmental law and its general plan by not adequately spelling out and analyzing Fanita Ranch's environmental effects.

Judge Linda B. Quinn found the city's environmental documents did not adequately address fire safety issues.

City officials said they had removed language that had called for controlled burns out of concern for fire safety, and requiring the use of goats or sheep to thin vegetation due in part to negative feedback from the environmental groups. But the city required a host of other fire safety precautions, Santee City Manager Keith Till said, including the use of fire sprinklers, 100-foot fire buffers and fire-resistant building materials.

John Buse, an attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Preserve Wild Santee, said the city should have considered redesigning the project or adopting other measures to ensure fire safety.

“We think it should be pretty clear, this is a fundamental issue,” Buse said. “It goes to the heart of the Fanita Ranch project.”

Till, however, called the ruling a “minor setback,” and said he felt confident the questions regarding fire safety could be resolved.

“We're awaiting further clarification of the court's wishes as to how to further address it, but we know we can and we will be able to explain just how this could be made a fire safe community,” Till said.

© Copyright 1995-2008 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton