Stampeding Toward Santee
By Bill Owens
“Ten years ago,” says Jack Dale, “people were saying things like ‘You live in Santee?’ Now I get phone calls from folks who say, ‘I’d like to move to Santee. Where should I look?’”
Dale can tell those folks exactly where to look. He’s the mayor, and he seems to know every edifice, street, rock and tree in Santee. Tooling around the East County town in his red Nissan convertible, the 40-year-old, blue-eyed mayor might easily be mistaken for a lost yuppie in search of a Starbucks.
On the droptop tour of Santee, His Honor hails constituents, nods to city roadwork crews and waves to cops on patrol. He points out parks and points of interest, churches and chain stores. The post office, the firehouse, the site of the future civic center. Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility (a.k.a. jail). Now and again the mayor stabs a button on his cell phone to get a data hit from City Hall.
He loves this mayoral gig. A hands-on official, Dale is more than happy to make things happen in his 17-square-mile community. He can get potholes fixed and soccer fields built. He can schmooze industry titans at ribbon cuttings and see that requested speed bumps get installed on a residential street.
“It’s such a kick being mayor,” Dale says. “I am literally part of building a town. There are plaques with my name on them on bridges and at the trolley station. Since 1984, when I was elected to the water board, there’s very little that’s gone on in Santee that I wasn’t a part of. People here have given me a very rare opportunity.”
Opportunity is an operative word these days in the once-isolated former farming area 18 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. In Santee’s horse-and-buggy days, vineyards grew and dairy cattle grazed in this placid valley below brown hills thick with chaparral. But the grapes and cows gave way to Cyclone fence and bulldozers, cash registers and cars. An erstwhile dairy farm now corrals a small herd of the 2,300 mobile homes in town.
In 1955, there were 3,000 souls in Santee. Today, the city’s population is 55,000 and growing. And the San Diego River runs through it. At the west end of the valley, near Father Junípero Serra Trail, there’s a study in sociocultural contrasts. Not far from the historic Old Mission Dam, built circa 1800 by indigenous Kumeyaay Indian laborers, looms a bustling, 108,000-square-foot Kmart store, built circa 1992.
Incorporated as a city in 1980, Santee is a place with space left to grow. Only half of its 10,641 acres are developed. Construction clatter has long been a familiar sound in town, especially over the last decade, when broad groves of girders took hold on the valley floor. Large-scale retail outlets such as Wal-Mart, Ross Stores and Home Depot were built on a 706-acre chunk of commercial realty called Santee Town Center, across from the mammoth Price-Costco complex.
Once perceived as slow-growth and business-unfriendly, Santee officials reportedly streamlined permit processes to ease community entry of major chain stores. Though the presence of these superemporiums has eroded the bottom line for some of Santee’s smaller retailers, many locals welcome the high-volume giants.
“Everything that I need shopping-wise is here,” says Santee resident Melissa McCracken. “I still enjoy the views and the hills, yet if I want to go to Blockbuster Video or the Price Club, every store is right here.”
Getting in and out of Santee had never been overly convenient. For many in other parts of San Diego County, Santee seemed an inaccessible little yahoo burg, way out there at the nexus of nowhere and nothing. A parched settlement reserved for rednecked rubes and trailer-park geezers baking like biscuits in their double-wides. Gateway to electrifying Lakeside. You know, Yokelville.
No longer so. As the state transportation grid expands, Santee gains greater access to surrounding areas, and vice versa. The opening of the easterly leg of State Route 52 (SR-52) from Interstate 5 into Santee linked the town to Tierrasanta, Clairemont, La Jolla, the Golden Triangle and beyond. The concrete corridor across the canyons not only lightened the traffic loads on Mission Gorge Road, I-8 and I-15, it gave Santee citizens a painless path to the Pacific.
“I love 52,” exclaims McCracken. “It’s provided us with a straight-across, crow-flies kind of route. I can get in the car and be at La Jolla Shores in 20 minutes. Plus, having enjoyed La Jolla a lot, we’re only 13 miles from there. I’m sure they’re thrilled,” she adds with a laugh.
The connect-the-dots highway system is a work in progress. If all goes as planned, fab 52 will hook up with SR-125 by spring of next year. But the final stretch of the SR scenario, linking SR-125 to SR-67, is a project in search of funding. About $200 million worth of funding. “We’re scampering around looking for the money to finish it,” says Mayor Dale.
In the meantime, commuters can hop on the trolley. Completed two years ago, the Santee Transit Station ties the city to downtown San Diego and points between. The trolley’s on track as a pollution-reducing people-mover and a way to draw consumers and their sales-tax dollars into Santee businesses. Community concerns that felonious riffraff would ride the rails into the tranquil town have so far proven groundless. Placing a manned sheriff’s substation adjacent to the trolley stop has apparently helped in that regard.
Santee officials are proud of the city’s low crime rate—after Poway’s, it’s the second-lowest in the county. Churches outnumber cocktail lounges by a wide margin, and gang activity is all but unheard of. Indeed, Santee is a hotbed of wholesome youth sports activities, and the city boasts acres of well-used but healthy green athletic fields.
Almost 30 percent of Santee subjects are 17 or under. There are Little Leaguers, skateboarders, Bobby Soxers and bike riders all over town. Kids shoot leisurely hoops at Santee’s prize-winning Mast Park, skip rocks across the many lakes and ponds, or just grab a fishing pole and try their luck at a secluded spot along the riverbank. It’s not exactly Mayberry, but it may be close.
“People come to Santee to raise their kids,” notes Mayor Dale, himself a father of five and a staunch soccer Dad. “This is like a small Midwestern town dropped into Southern California. They come out here because of the excellent schools, low crime and the overall quality of life. And because they can get a lot of house for their dollar.”
According to statistics supplied by the Santee Chamber of Commerce, the 1996 median market price of a single-family home in Santee was $152,000. The median cost of a condo unit was $104,000.
Demographic patterns show that an increasing number of Santee inhabitants are in the “upwardly mobile” mode. Hard facts belie the city’s hicks-in-a-pickup image. The number of college-educated townies has risen dramatically since the 1970s. White-collar workers have discovered the town and—along with homegrown up-and-comers—helped boost its median annual income to just under $45,000. And while housing prices are well within reach for many, houses themselves are not exactly in surplus.
The unfortunate downside to all this, says Mayor Dale, is that “as people get disposable dollars, they’re leaving town. They may need a bigger house for tax reasons or because of a growing family. But as you become more successful in your career, I don’t want you moving to another city and spending your money someplace else.” Dale’s also keen on keeping the best and the brightest in town to fill leadership slots in various school, sports and community programs.
The solution? Build homes, of course. There are residential subdivisions and single-family move-ups now under construction, with still more in the planning stages. Some projects bear elegant monikers such as Silver Country Estates, The Heights and Prospect Hills II.
One crucial development venture sure to change the face of Santee (Environmental Impact Reports and public-outreach results notwithstanding) is the 2,600-acre Fanita Ranch project. As currently envisioned, the ranch plan calls for as many as 3,000 homes in an “upscale planned community with a championship golf course.”
Will Fanita bring in boomers and executive types or keep well-off locals from defecting? And when did funky old Santee turn into some highfalutin enclave like Rancho Santa Fe? After all, can a steak-and-whiskey whistlestop suddenly switch to Brie and Pouilly-Fuissé?
Mayor Dale, who owns a Santee home–cum–swimming pool, does not consider such posh-sounding places as the proposed Fanita Ranch to be exclusive or elitist in any way. He sees these models as “alternative housing stock to what we have in town right now.”
Evidently there is not much in the way of alternative housing stock for the transients who camp in riverbed compounds near Santee’s Mast Park, the Wal-Mart store or behind the RCP Block & Brick plant. Sheriff’s deputies conduct ongoing sweeps of the homeless encampments, rousting trespassers with the aid of two four-wheel-drive vehicles recently purchased by the city. Said Santee City Councilman Randy Voepel of the sweeps: “We’re not going to save the world here. We’re just trying to keep a zone of control.”
But to some, Santee may be spinning out of control. Some natives and natives-come-lately worry that outlanders and carpetbaggers are overtaking their harmonious hamlet. Many residents partial to a countrified lifestyle with lots of elbow room now complain of sometimes-stifling traffic and that fenced-in feeling. And those with environmental concerns fear damage to plants and wildlife, should the habitat priorities be set by banks, politicians and builders.
“Since 52 came through,” says Carole Johnson, who often commutes by bicycle from her Mast Boulevard home to her job in nearby El Cajon, “our street is like living on a racetrack.” If things get worse, adds Johnson, she and her husband might pack up and move “further out, to Alpine or Ramona. I still like Santee,” she points out, “but I wish people would stop moving here. It’s getting too big and too busy.”
Santee was neither big nor busy when Harriette Wade moved there with her parents in 1940. There were 800 folks and no phones. Back then, says the white-haired Wade, president of the Santee Historical Society, “this place used to be just covered with horses.” She shakes her head. “But they don’t want to allow horses in Santee anymore.”
Wade learned to swim in Padre Dam. As a girl, she hiked and rode horseback all over the hills of Santee, and then some. “I used to ride from here up to Escondido,” she recalls.
She recalls a lot, actually. Things like vivid expanses of purple sage, mile upon mile of magnolia trees and the smell of clean and cool night air. Wade speaks of former neighbor Josephine Scripps (of the newspaper-dynasty Scrippses) as “a peach of a dame. We used to wag flags back and forth at each other on holidays. And she gave me keys to all her gates, as long as I locked ’em.”
Wade’s bright eyes twinkle when she talks about the past. Passionate regarding all things Santee, her words evoke images of long-dead shapers of the early community. She tells of George A. Cowles (pronounced “coals”), prominent San Diegan, banker, railroad pioneer and founder of Cowlestown. Known as the “Raisin King of the United States,” Cowles harvested muscat grapes by the ton on his sun-soaked 4,000-acre East County spread. His largest vineyard once flourished on the area that’s now Gillespie Field.
The Raisin King died in 1887, notes historian Wade, and three years later his widow married an attorney and real estate man named Milton Santee. According to Wade, widow Cowles lobbied hard to change the name Cowlestown to Santee, and in 1893 she got her way by a “reluctant vote of the citizens.”
Reluctance is something of a leitmotif in Santee. Wade was reluctant to leave her beloved 11-acre property three years ago to accommodate the immutable path of a superhighway. “You don’t know what it really did to me when Caltrans took my 11 acres for that freeway 125,” she says of the eminent-domain ouster. “I was the last one to sign off on it.”
She takes her Santee roots seriously. After years of tenacious wrangling, Wade helped secure the polo barn at the former Edgemoor Farm a slot on the National Register of Historic Places. The barn, built in 1913 by Walter H. Dupee to house his prize Guernsey cattle and champion polo ponies, stands proudly painted and preserved on the grounds of the troubled and time-worn Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital.
Wade still lives in Santee, her “hills of home,” though on a much smaller parcel and with a different view of some things. “I’ve really seen Santee grow up,” she says. “And it was fun growing up here.”
These days and nights, what can grownups do for fun in contemporary Santee? There’s jogging and hiking along the myriad pathways and rustic trails. Hiking, boating, fishing and camping at Santee Lakes; golf or tennis at the Carlton Oaks Country Club.
Nightlife? An urban sophisticate might think that they roll up the Santee sidewalks at sundown. It’s not exactly Vegas, but the town does offer some after-dark diversions. You can shoot a bit of stick at Classic Billiards, throw darts in the Driftwood Lounge or just hunker down to a serious steak at casual Pinnacle Peak (no ties allowed). Tush-push to country tunes at Mulvaney’s. Grab a combo plate at the Chic-N-Pigg or some Chinese at the Panda Country Restaurant, then catch a first-run flick at Santee’s AMC-8 Theaters.
Nostalgia buffs (or the era-impaired) can savor the ’50s flavor of the Santee Drive-In movie on Woodside Avenue. “That’s the only reason to go to Santee,” jokes cynical San Diegan Jerry Bridge. “We stop at the 7-Eleven there on the corner, stock up on stuff and go to the drive-in.”
But requisite Santee gags aside, surely there’s more flair there? “Well,” says Bridge, “Bob’s Bait & Tackle is always kind of exciting.”
The mayor of this city has a sense of humor, but he’s nobody’s fool. He is aware that a viable Santee must maintain its uncomplicated, rural ambience while creating a dynamic and up-to-date climate for homebuyers and entrepreneurs. “We’ve got to find that blend and equation,” says Dale. “Balance is the key word. And the constant struggle is balancing what we desire to see for our town’s future but making sure it’s at an appropriate cost.”
He means cost in terms of community impact, not finances. But can a tilt in civic equilibrium tip over a town? In this high kid-per-capita colony, education is all-important. And from Chet F. Harritt Elementary to West Hills High, Santee’s award-winning schools are widely praised. Scenario: Homes are built. Families move in. Classrooms fill up. And up.
“We’re at a point where it’s getting close,” says Dale of the potential school-overcrowding. “To my way of thinking, that’s the beginning of the end.”
But he’s adamantly positive about solving problems and optimistic regarding the possibility that is Santee. He’s serious when he talks of public values, shared community goals and “the vision.” Dale is like a kid on Christmas morning when unfurling plans for Trolley Square, a proposed 50-acre swath of shops, eateries and a 24-screen movie theater to be built on the Transit Center site. He’s practically giddy with vision.
Citizen Melissa McCracken believes that —for better or worse—Santee’s future is now. “I think we’re right at that cut before we get obnoxiously overpopulated,” she says. “I’m still able to get out and see land instead of just houses. But I don’t really know how long that’s going to last. You can kind of see the storm coming.”
Dale and city planners project that Santee will be “built out” in 15 years or so, supporting a society of 75,000. The mayor is confident that at that point, the city will have a balanced economy, ample and meaningful employment, an abundance of parks, plus a wide array of housing options.
And no more snickers about Santee as a shopping or haute-cuisine destination. “You’ll be able to buy a suit of clothes in town, and you won’t have to go to the Gaslamp Quarter for a gourmet dinner,” Dale predicts.
But whither Mayberry? “We’ll still have plenty of open spaces, great schools and a low crime rate. Route 52 will be done, and we’ll have filled in all the other missing pieces.” A mayoral pause for emphasis. “But Santee will still be a small town with a small-town atmosphere. We haven’t lost our past, we’re just bringing it with us into the future.”