Judge halts 3,000-home project in San Diego suburb over wildfire concerns

A California court has temporarily blocked a long-planned project to build thousands of homes in Santee, a San Diego suburb, in a victory for environmental groups who argued the city hadn’t done enough to guard against wildfires.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal ruled this month that the Fanita Ranch project failed to fully consider how an influx of people could affect a region at risk of fire.

It’s “not clear based on the information presented whether residents and those in the surrounding community would be able to timely evacuate,” Bacal wrote in the March 3 decision.

The ruling comes as communities struggle to balance climate change risks with a lack of housing. Several recent proposals throughout San Diego County have been struck down, including one last year in Otay Ranch.

“This project should never have been approved, and officials across California need to stop letting sprawl drive up fire threats,” Peter Broderick, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The Arizona-based nonprofit has challenged multiple proposed developments, and joined with Preserve Wild Santee, the California Chaparral Institute and the Endangered Habitats League to fight Fanita Ranch.

The development would include around 3,000 homes in the hills beyond Santee Lakes and was approved by the Santee City Council in late 2020.

The proposal is overseen by HomeFed Fanita Rancho, and a project leader said the ruling was only a setback.

“We have such a huge housing shortage,” Jeff O’Connor, vice president of the Carlsbad-based HomeFed Corp., said in an interview. He said his organization was weighing whether to appeal the decision or work with the judge to address her concerns.

“We need to do some more work on fire evacuation,” he added.

The judge also faulted the project for not giving the public more time to consider a key change: the elimination of a planned extension of Magnolia Avenue, one of the available escape routes.

However, the court rejected arguments from environmentalists that new homes posed dramatic threats to the gnatcatcher, a species of songbird, and the spadefoot toad.

The next hearing is scheduled for March 25, although the case could effectively be rendered irrelevant if voters reject the proposed development in a ballot initiative this November.

Messages left with Santee’s mayor, city manager and city attorney were not immediately returned.

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