Conservation groups sue over Fanita Ranch development

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Four conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against Santee and its city council for approving a 2,600-acre housing development in an area the groups say is prone to wildfires and home to several threatened and endangered species.

The council approved the Fanita Ranch project late last month with a 4- 1 vote. The project would include 2,949 homes, more than 1,600 acres of open space, a 30-acre organic farm, and a town center with restaurants, shopping, offices, an elementary school and fire station, according to HomeFed Fanita Rancho LLC, the development group behind the project.

According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Center for Biological Diversity, Preserve Wild Santee, Endangered Habitats League and California Chaparral Institute, the project will “destroy or degrade about 989 acres of sensitive habitat” for a variety of species, and presents a fire risk to its residents, planned to number about 8,000.

The lawsuit also alleges that the city’s environmental impact report on the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to adequately analyze or mitigate the project’s impacts to biological, cultural, and tribal resources or its wildfire risks.

“The project overlaps with dangerous fire-risk areas and known populations of sensitive species,” said Van Collinsworth of Preserve Wild Santee. “And last-minute changes to the project’s development plan removed one of the main roadway connections, making safe evacuations even more difficult and worsening local traffic.”

City officials could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the lawsuit.

Jeff O’Connor, vice president of HomeFed Corp., said these lawsuits “delay development and they cost a lot of money and it increases the cost of each house.”

“We are continuing to get our permits,” O’Connor said. “We need probably half a dozen more permits before we can start construction and we are going to continue doing that.”

The conservation groups say the Fanita Ranch site is on land designated as critical habit for the federally threatened coastal California gnatcatcher, and also serves as habitat for western spadefoot Toads, Quino checkerspot butterflies, and San Diego fairy shrimp.

The groups also say the project site has been designated as a “Very High Severity Fire Hazard Zone” by CalFire, and has been subject to several wildfires, including the 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned around 95% of the vegetation at the project site.

“Even with repeated warnings from fire experts, Santee officials illegally fast-tracked this dangerous development,” said Tiffany Yap, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The city is ignoring the climate crisis, increasing wildfire danger and prioritizing developer profits over the safety of new residents and existing communities. Reckless sprawl development like the Fanita Ranch project endangers the people and unique biodiversity of San Diego County.”

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