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Randy Voepel

Santee mayor champions community's economic development

Santee made headlines last summer as the bedroom community that could -- fighting the potential expansion of the Las Colinas Detention Facility, a jail for women.

"We are fighting the Las Colinas expansion with everything we have and we will not give up," said Mayor Randy Voepel. "It makes no sense to make a $165 million mistake in Santee."

Voepel, who became a councilman in 1996 and was elected mayor in December 2000 and again in 2004, added that the facility would spread into approximately 43 percent of the East County community's downtown.

"We will do every possible legal, moral, ethical, media move possible," he said.

Voepel described a "seven-layer offense" formulated by city staff to fight the expansion of the facility.

"It's the most elaborate action Santee's ever taken," he said.

In 1996, the county and the city of Santee settled to keep Las Colinas as a permanent facility, but to maintain the area at 16 acres.

"They're going against their own court outcome," said Voepel.

The city also commissioned The London Group to study the economic impact of the detention facility on residents. The study concluded the development could result in lost revenue of more than $165 million, and that the project is not the "highest and best use" of the land.

Incorporated as a city in 1980, Santee has built a reputation as a suburban residential community. In past years, however, the city has become a place where residents stay and shop local. When he was first elected mayor, Voepel said, Santee had one of the largest sales tax leakages in the county, at 37 percent.

Now, Santee has one of the lowest rates at 8 percent.

Office and industrial development is bringing more commerce and workers to the city.

"We're bringing over 4,800 (people) in our high-tech corporate campus," said Voepel of the RiverView mixed-use development. Adjacent to Trolley Square, the 104-acre project has been master planned for 1.9 million square feet of technology, R&D and professional office uses along the San Diego River.

Santee is placed just below Encinitas in property tax value, and continues to keep 25 percent of its budget in the general fund for future investment.

Since his arrival, office developments like RiverView, Gateway and Cuyamaca Town Commons have settled in the city.

"Those things are selling like hotcakes in a recessionary market," Voepel said.

With the promise of development also comes the conflict of open space and environmental sustainability, a theme that has surrounded the planned development of Fanita Ranch.

Covering approximately one-quarter of Santee, the Ranch is currently undeveloped space. Voepel and the City Council favor a plan to leave half of the area as open space and to build 1,380 homes on the remaining land, to be developed by Carlsbad-based Barrett America.

Community activists have protested the development in a recent letter to the city. The letter claimed the draft environmental impact report does not adequately delineate potential measures to mitigate the project's effects on the environment, and that the report did not consider enough alternatives.

Voepel assures that the development will respect the preservation of vernal pools, native habitat and the "unhindered flow of critters."

The park would also include equestrian trails, hiking trails and a 20-acre sport park, open to all community members.

"We are doing something that is unique and different in California," he said.

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