Vernal Pools, Birds, People in Path : Santee Freeway Route Picked; Reception Cool

Times Staff Writer

State highway engineers have chosen a freeway route to Santee that will travel across vernal pools, through the habitat of endangered least Bell's vireos, and wipe out the homes of about 535 families and displace 180 businesses.

The environmental impact study for the final segment of California 52, a state freeway linking Santee to La Jolla, was released this week to the groans of Santee officials and some of the residents who live in the path of the proposed east-west corridor.

Caltrans engineers chose the route from a half-dozen alternatives as the least disruptive and least expensive. It connects with current California 52 construction north of Tierrasanta and runs eastward past Fortuna Mountain to Santee Lakes.

The alignment then crosses south of Mission Gorge Road and heads southeasterly to a corridor about 500 feet north of Prospect Avenue as it goes through Santee and ends at California 67.

An alternate choice proposed by Caltrans for the route through Santee is an alignment that runs along the south side of the San Diego River and wipes out much of a planned Santee Town Center commercial development, including a major Hahn Co. shopping center. This route was previously rejected by the Santee City Council.

A third route, ruled out by Caltrans engineers because of its cost and its failure to effectively relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 8, swings north of Santee to an interchange with California 67. This alignment does not traverse residential or commercial development in Santee.

Caltrans hearings on the proposed alignment are scheduled for next month. The most heated session is expected to be the May 13 hearing in Santee, where proponents of the various alignments through town are expected to clash.

Santee Councilman Jim Bartell champions the northern route because of its minimal impact on developed areas in the city, but he admits that Caltrans' estimates of its high cost were verified by a city-commissioned engineering study.

"Nevertheless, I am going to be keeping close tabs on the costs of the Prospect (Avenue) route," Bartell said. He said he expects that the southernmost route will be chosen by the California Transportation Commission next December and he predicts that final construction costs will spiral to equal the estimated expense of building the northern route.

State Sen. Jim Ellis, R-San Diego, irked over apparent "foot-dragging" by Santee officials in choosing a route through the city, successfully sponsored legislation which took the final say away from the city. However, Assemblyman Larry Stirling, R-San Diego, said Wednesday that an amendment to the legislation requires the CTC to take Santee residents' opinions into consideration when selecting the freeway's path.

"I would have wished that Sen. Ellis had consulted us before sponsoring such legislation," Santee Mayor M.C. (Jack) Doyle said Wednesday. But the mayor sidestepped naming his preferred alignment through the city, saying he wanted to wait until after Santee citizens have had a chance to make their wishes known.

The recommended Caltrans route through Santee would run north of Prospect Avenue for 2.5 miles and cost an estimated $89 million--$50 million for right-of-way and $39 million for construction.

State highway engineers admitted that 535 dwellings, including 275 mobile homes, would be in the path of the roadway. However, relocation payments, counseling and possible construction of replacement housing would mitigate the impact on Santee residents, they said.

More than half the Santee residents who would be dispossessed by the Prospect Avenue route are senior citizens, the Caltrans environmental report stated.

The choice between the Prospect Avenue and river routes through Santee "is a controversial issue with Santee citizens and officials," the environmental report noted. "The river alternative is considered by some to be a disruptive impact on Santee's Town Center Plan, while others view the Prospect route as a greater impact on business, jobs and revenue."

A comment-card poll conducted by Caltrans at informational meetings held since March, 1984, when the environmental impact report on California Route 52 first started, showed that of 82 responses, 56% preferred the Prospect Avenue alignment, 35% chose the river alignment and 9% preferred no freeway at all through the city.

Assemblyman Stirling said Wednesday that he considers the route decision "to be up to the citizens of Santee," but he stressed that an east-west freeway connecting with north-south routes--Interstates 5, 15 and 805, and California 67--is an immediate necessity to relieve traffic on Interstate 8, which parallels California 52 to the south and presently carries daily traffic loads of up to 239,000 cars a day.

California 52 is designed to provide a direct route from the fast-growing East County cities of El Cajon, Lakeside and Santee to the employment centers of Kearny Mesa, Sorrento Valley and North City West and to serve as the northern part of a traffic loop around the San Diego metropolitan area.

The route was adopted into the state's transportation improvement plan in 1984 as a long-range priority which specifies its completion by not later than 1995.

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