San Diego County Planning to Triple Size of Jail Facility in Downtown Santee, Should Consider Cheaper & Better Alternatives

The City of Santee, California, and San Diego County are currently embroiled in a big fight over the expansion and renovation of a women’s detention facility located in Santee. The problem is that when the facility was originally built several decades ago, it was a small, out-of-the way rural community, but now it is a thriving city of 57,000 residents and the jail facility sits right in the downtown area. Santee is a lot different now than it was when the Las Colinas Detention Facility was initially constructed, and residents and business owners in the area are justifiably concerned about plans to triple the size of the jail, from its current 15 acres to 45 acres–complete with guard towers and barbed wire fencing around the perimeter–in the city’s urban core. The expanded facility would comprise roughly 20% of the entire downtown area.

The County owns hundreds of other parcels of land, many of which would be much more suitable for a jail facility and could be built on less valuable land outside a city center, but has so far refused to seriously consider alternative sites.

The Las Colinas land is adjacent to the RiverView office and technology mixed-use campus, which is part of the 700-acre Santee Town Center and transit center. The facility is also surrounded by homes, a church and a day-care center, and senior mobile home parks.

A study of the land for the proposed expanded jail site by The London Group Realty Advisors concluded that the land has a market value of $89 million. In addition, the study estimated that the expansion of the jail would reduce the value of surrounding properties by $75 million. This reduction in land value and the foregone revenue the County could receive from selling the land for more productive and appropriate uses would result in a total economic loss of approximately $165 million.

The consultants’ report also suggested several other potential sites for the jail among the hundreds of parcels of land that the County owns. One promising site at or adjacent to the East Otay Mesa Detention Facility would allow the County to save on costs for food, warehouse services, and transportation of goods by sharing or consolidating services and infrastructure with the existing facility there. Even if the East Otay Mesa site is deemed unsuitable for some reason, there are many other sites of County-owned land that should be considered. In consideration of this, it would be prudent for the County undertake a comprehensive evaluation of its real estate portfolio to identify other sites for an expanded detention facility that would be better alternatives.

Given the value of the land Las Colinas sits on in the downtown Santee area, and the loss in property values and development opportunities that would result from its expansion at the current site, it makes financial sense for the County to sell the land and use the proceeds to develop an upgraded facility elsewhere. The incompatibility of an expanded detention facility with the City of Santee’s current and future makeup and growth, and the resulting public opposition to the proposal, only reinforce this notion.

In deciding on the proper way and place to renovate and expand the Las Colinas Detention Facility, San Diego County supervisors should consider the impact of the jail expansion on taxpayers across the county, as well as the residents of Santee who are rightly concerned about the effects of the County’s decision on their community and quality of life. Unfortunately, County supervisors recently voted 4-1 to support the current expansion proposal at the present Santee location. The lone dissenting vote was that of Chairwoman Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Santee. The City of Santee has vowed to fight the County vigorously in the courts.