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County's proposal to expand women's jail stirs resistance in Santee

Dueling studies express the need, and economic perils of an expanded Las Colinas Detention Facility, as the city of Santee continues to grow around the property.

Las Colinas, an 800-bed women's jail that has operated on the property for more than 40 years, was a fixture long before Santee was incorporated in 1980, but city officials have argued that they, not the county, should have the final determination as to what is to be built in their municipality.

The county would like to expand from an approximately 16-acre site along Cottonwood Avenue, north of Mission Gorge Road, onto adjacent property currently occupied by the Edgemoor Hospital.

That operation will in turn be transferred into a new Edgemoor Skilled Nursing Facility under construction about a mile away at Mast Boulevard and Cottonwood Avenue.

The county has long expressed a desire for a new Las Colinas jail. Years of overcrowding have regularly resulted female inmates being released many months before their due dates, so as to keep within as state mandated capacity limits.

The combined campus-style jail would have about 460,000 square feet on a 45-acre footprint and capacity for about 1,200 inmates at buildout.

Other features would include a library, exercise yard, a wide range of buildings for inmate industries and employment training, rooms for counseling and other functions.

The project would also have parking for 300 to 400 vehicles.

The rebuilt and expanded jail is intended to cover the county's capacity needs until 2020. It's not clear what happens after that.

In May, the San Diego County Grand Jury issued a report saying the jails current conditions, which range from insufficient toilets to placing inmates in triple bunks, are nothing short of deplorable.

Bill Gore, county undersheriff, agrees.

"And this is the only primary booking facility for female inmates in the county," Gore said before adding that with the extension of State Route 52 a few years ago, Las Colinas is very centrally located. "We don't want to have to go to Otay Mesa or Valley Center."

Gore argued that the expanded new jail, which could cost some $250 million to construct, will be a good neighbor, and that opponents to the project should recognize that jails such of these serve an important societal function.

But both a report by London Group Realty Advisors and Santee Mayor Randy Voepel argue that a jail is a very poor use of some valuable riverfront land. What's more, Voepel said even though Las Colinas was built a generation ago, it was not meant to be a permanent facility.

London's report, which came out last month, said expanding the jail could have a $164 million negative impact.

By London's estimates, the sale of the 45-acre site to private developers could net the county about $89 million, coupled with a $75 million devaluation of the adjacent county-owned land because of the stigma of the jail.

The London study also noted that the Santee venue has been the only location considered by the county.

When asked if he plans to file a lawsuit against the county to try and stop the plans, Voepel said he is still hoping to reach an accord.

He added, however, that he does expect Santee to file a lawsuit against the county on environmental grounds but declined to elaborate further.

While Santee and the county wage battle over Las Colinas, plenty of other activity is happening in the East County city.

One of those projects is the ongoing construction of the Edgemore Skilled Nursing Facility that will replace the 83-year-old Edgemoor Hospital next to Los Colinas. Estimates vary, but by any account the county facility is tens of millions of dollars over-budget and that hasn't been its only problem.

The 180,000-square-foot 192-bed project, now slated for completion in August 2008, is years behind schedule.

There were many disputes including a feud with architect Anshen & Anshen over whether or not structural beams were up to fireproofing codes.

The county reportedly added fireproof padding around those beams, Anshen & Anshen was later replaced by Carrier Johnson of San Diego as the project architect.

Voepel said given the trouble the county has had with Edgemoor, he said he isn't sure it would be the right entity to handle the Las Colinas job.

Both Las Colinas and the existing Edgemoor facility are within the 706-acre Santee Town Center Community Plan -- a plan that has already seen millions of square feet of retail development, and will soon see nearly 2 million square feet of new office development as well.

Voepel said while his city was losing about 35 percent of sales tax receipts to other cities as recently as three years ago, all but about 7 percent is staying in town today.

"Our restaurants on Restaurant Row are way ahead of their projections, and we're going to have two Walgreens, one on each end of the city," Voepel said.

Next door to Los Colinas, The Ryan Cos., a Minnesota-based development firm, is building RiverView at Santee, a 108-acre, Class A, mixed-use project with 1.9 million square feet of research and development, technology, professional office, retail, entertainment and residential uses.

RiverView's current phase is delivering six Class A office buildings totaling 63,500 square feet.

RiverView at Santee will be located along the south bank of the San Diego River with frontage on Cuyamaca Street, Mission Gorge Road and Magnolia Avenue, and will wrap around the 443,000-square-foot Santee Trolley Square shopping center.

As for housing, after many struggles between developers and environmental groups, plans appear to be moving forward on Carlsbad-based Barratt American's proposed Fanita Ranch development.

The Fanita Ranch project will encompass 2,600 acres in the northern part of Santee and provide 1,380 single-family homes and 1,400 acres of open space with public access to hiking trails and planned parks.

All of the housing will be single-family detached homes on lots ranging from 6,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet.

Fanita Ranch will utilize nearly 25 percent of Santee's overall land area. If all goes as Barratt hopes construction could begin late next year, but the timing of that will depend both on needed approvals, and how well the market has improved by then.

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