Growth Politics

by Carolyn Chase


People are asking, 'what does the outcome of the Fanita Ranch vote mean for smart growth in San Diego?' Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that backers had tried to give the patina of smart growth. The Union Tribune editorialized about the "troubling questions" the outcome raises. Lawdy, lawdy, how will we accommodate the growth of our own babies if people won't accept the deals that are being brokered?

"Now that the most lucrative development agreement in the county's history has been scrapped, the city is back to square one," the editors worry. First, I question their assessment of this as "the most lucrative development agreement in the county's history." But methinks the voters had more than lucre on their minds. What were they getting for their money? Was it really smart growth?

Maybe the people were smarter than the brokers on this one.

The outcome is actually good news for smart growth prospects. The proposal - as negotiated by insider interests - was not very smart. The residents of Santee, one brave city councilman - supported by other conservation and community-minded volunteers - organized effectively to defeat it.

Why didn't it pass the "smart growth test"?

It did not provide areas of density connected by viable transportation alternatives to the car. These alternatives should include designing a community so that people can walk for most of their daily needs, shopping or to an office. It was overwhelmingly residential only and not mixed use (it did include every sub-division's obligatory golf course/hotel combo). Overall, it represented the "unsmart" auto-dependent approach of putting residential density that normally is planned for city cores (near services and transportation) in a cul-de-sac with no options but to drive back and forth to get basic necessities. Contrary to the suggestion by the Union-Tribune that it would satisfy the "need for upscale residences," the project fell far short of the balance of upscale housing that is provided for in Santee's General Plan.

They did not try for consensus. They tried to get it through a developer-influenced city council combined with project proponent confidence that professional campaigning could buy voter support. Pardee Construction had tried a similar approach a while back in trying to open-up the Future Urbanizing Area without coalition support. One of their Senior Vice-Presidents later referred to that campaign as "more than a million dollars poured down the drain."

The smart growth projects that were finally accepted by voters in San Diego last year in the SR56 corridor took painful lessons on all sides before something emerged that was good enough to be endorsed by a coalition of landowners, community members and environmentalists. At this point, Fanita Ranch has been through so many twists and turns and votes that maybe next round the parties will try the only thing they haven't tried: to get together on something that has coalition-based support.

Van Collinsworth, Preserve Wild Santee founder, notes, "People act as if the only place building in Santee can happen is Fanita Ranch. The fact is that Silver Estates, Prospect Hills, Mesa Heights, and Mitchell Ranch, are building now and the potential for another 5,000 units exist in the Santee Town Center. These places are the compromise - they are closer to the urban core and the Trolley Center. They don't introduce urban run-off over the Fanita ridgelines and into the watershed of Sycamore Canyon Creek - the only clean creek left in this area. The Fanita Ranch site itself is not suitable for residential development. These hills define the visual character of Santee - the slopes are in excess of 25% on over half the property - in excess of 30% on the southern portion of the site adjacent to existing development. Twenty four ancient landslides etc., etc. It's just plain silly to bulldoze such a resource into manufactured slopes as high as 500 ft. and long as 2,000 feet and at the same time overwhelm city infrastructure."

Robin Rierdan, Santee resident and one of the organizers of the grass roots referendum, shared from the heart after the results came in; this gives you an insight into why the residents won this round: "We have given the Fanita Ranch another spring and, God willing, maybe a chance for preservation. We have sent a message that it is no longer business as usual in San Diego. Blue collar, moderate income, conservative Santee residents rejected the standard industry 'bribery with amenities' and exhortations that the future will be worse without this developer in shining armor coming to our rescue. We will stand up for ourselves, our quality of life, our neighborhoods, our neighbors and homes."

Mitch Lizar, a relatively disinterested member of Mira Mesa's Community Planning group, made a point to mention to me how really heartened he was by the outcome of the vote. Why? I asked. "Don't build it and they won't come" he replied. But you know that's not really true, I pressed. "Maybe so, but it's good to save as much as we can along the way." he replied. "Besides, it inspired me to see people working together and struggling for something better."

Thank goodness there are still enough people willing and able to organize whose support cannot be bought through glossy brochures and self-interested disinformation. We can only hope we can apply this basic lesson about politics and democracy for future attempts to cloak poorly-designed projects as smart growth.

Real smart growth efforts will be rewarded and others will be fought. Seems to me that democracy is healthy and working.