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By Henri Migala

Miriam Raftery also contributed to this report.

Photo, left: Billy Ortiz and Bobby Wallace, co-organizers of efforts to preserve El Monte Valley

February 11, 2021 (Lakeside) – Thanks to widespread community engagement, San Diego County Supervisors yesterday voted unanimously to purchase 98 acres in El Monte Valley from Helix Water District for $2.92 million, preserving the land for public use.

The action came after the board received a petition with over 2,000 signatures and heard unanimous public testimony in support of the purchase. In addition, some 200 residents and tribal members held a march through the valley calling for the land to be protected.

Supervisor Joel Anderson, East County’s newly elected representative whose district includes Lakeside, initially voiced concerns over the cost and disrepair of facilities on the site. But after the majority of the board voiced support for the acquisition initiated by former Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Anderson ultimately not only voted for the land purchase, but also pushed his colleagues to support additional funds to restore dilapidated ball fields and other facilities on the site.

Some residents feared that if the county did not buy the land, Helix could sell the land at the valley’s entrance to a sand miner. Helix previously sold another parcel in the valley, which is now proposed for sand mining over the objections of valley residents. 

Some activists had argued that the land purchase at the valley’s entrance could also prevent the current sand mining proposal from moving forward. Supervisor Anderson asked staff, who disputed that point. Ashley Smith, Planning and Development Services, responded, “that is not correct. The sand mining operation that is proposed on the adjacent site will still be able to continue through the process that will include a public review of their CEQA document and then public hearings.”

Anderson voices concerns

Anderson raised concerns over the cost. “We’re spending on the Star Ranch purchase $3,600 an acre for just over 2,000 acres of pristine habitat (in Campo)…But it looks like we’re spending almost $30,000 per acre on this project and it’s far from pristine,” he said of the El Monte project. Staff confirmed this observation. “So, this project,” he noted, “when you add up the money to restore the habitat, when you add the cost of bringing everything up to speed, I believe it’s going to be $9 million, in its final version.”

Anderson then asked, “Why is it that Helix chose not to maintain this land?” He also questioned if the price was higher than the appraisal. Staff noted that the selling price of the land was in between the Board’s appraised price and Helix Water District’s appraised price, because different appraisal methods were used.

“I would really like them to use the Star Ranch appraised price, because $3,600 seems more reasonable. Why is it, as a public agency, they allowed this land to foul, and are not responsible for fixing and cleaning it, and allowed all the disrepair. Why are we paying extra to fix their problem?”  asked Anderson, who has long taken pride in serving as a fiscal watchdog for taxpayers.

Photo, right: Blighted ballfields and trash on the site, courtesy of Supervisor Joel Anderson

Before any public comments were heard, or any discussion by the Supervisors held, Anderson made a motion to not purchase the property, but instead identify a ‘replacement property or properties’ for “potential purchase” with previously appropriated funds, and urge Helix Water District to dedicate the property for public use as an open space, to be incorporated into public trails. The motion was seconded by Supervisor Jim Desmond.

“My wife and I use the trails. We’re not opposed to the trails. But, I just think that Helix should step up and play a bigger role in this. I don’t think this is in the best interest of the District, and that’s why I oppose it,” said Anderson.

Asked why Helix decided to sell the land, Helix Water Board director Kathleen Coates Hedberg told ECM via email, "We didn’t have any use for the property and the County is building the equestrian horse area ($18M) nearby and we thought the County would like to take it over and make improvements for the Community (ball field etc.)."

The Lakeside Equestrian Park is located on a 14-acre site at the northeast corner of Moreno Avenue and Willow Road, says Greg Kazmer, senior land use director with Supervisor Anderson's office. (Photo, left, shows approximate location in red circle). The County’s Department of Parks and Recreation website has more details here:

Public comments unanimously support land acquisition

Chairman Nathan Fletcher then opened the hearing to public comments.  According to staff, there were 19 e-mailed comments and 13 requests to speak. All supported the proposed purchase.

Judy Schorr noted: “Joel Anderson has already issued a press release indicating that this land acquisition doesn’t make sense. I thought the process on issues coming to a vote was to first allow public to weigh in on subject, have the Board consider all aspects, and then come to a decision.”

As for Anderson’s suggestion for Helix to keep the land in public trust, Schorr said, “”That horse has left the gate. The Water District just put land up for sale. And just because you think they shouldn’t sell it does not change the fact that they are selling it. Which leads to the fact that this Board has that very same fiduciary and ethical responsibility to this community, and should buy that land to protect it from inappropriate development.”

File photo, left: Supervisor Joel Anderson

She said that the price of the land cannot be likened to the Star Ranch property in Campo, since El Monte Valley is more accessible to the population. She added that the valley was “part of the trail system used by native peoples long ago that went all the way to the Four Corners. It is culturally and ecologically significant.”

Schorr initiated the online petition 10 days ago to approve this acquisition, which quickly drew over 2,000 signatures countywide. This acquisition is supported by more than just a handful of Lakeside residents. It is for the good, and the wishes of, all San Diego County.”

Robin Bodecker of Clairmont also owns a ranch in El Monte Valley, which she said has “provided a great variety of trails for hikers and horseback riders to enjoy for many years. This opportunity to get in touch with nature needs to be preserved for current future visitors and residents.”

She voiced concern that sand mining operations would “threaten the health of residents of the valley and adjacent neighborhoods in Lakeside. And it can certainly adversely affect the large aquifer in this valley with pollution and decrease the availability of clean water which we depend on.  I’m hoping your acquisition of the property will at least preserve the trails and usefulness of this beautiful valley…Your support in protecting the wildlife, fauna and natural beauty in this picturesque valley is vital.”

Joan Embery Pillsbury, former goodwill ambassador for the San Diego Zoo, owns a ranch in the valley and an equestrian facility nearby on 23 acres of the 98-acres up for sale. That includes a community riding club and a nonprofit wildlife conservation and education center that trains students. Her family has planted over 130 trees and helps clean up trash weekly on roads around the property, she said, adding that she and her late husband have invested over half a million dollars on the facility.

 “I support this purchase and I want to keep my current lease in place, and, if possible, be given the option to purchase the 23 acres at the end of my lease,” she said, adding, “The reason this land is disturbed is because it’s been used for recreation for many years. It’s very accessible to the community, and if not sold to the county, all uses are in jeopardy. I needs protection now. This could be our last chance to save it.”

Kenny Ramos from the Barona Band of Mission Indians said, “I graduated from El Capitan High School. I played little league on those fields. I want to.urge the Board Supervisors to continue with this acquisition.  This land is important not just to my tribal nation, culturally, but to all of us who live here in Lakeside. I think this is an opportunity to preserve a piece of the land and have something accessible not just for residents of Lakeside but to other people from outside of Lakeside to come enjoy the land, and what the land has to offer us, as native and non-native people, together”

Terry Bingham observed,  “Helix has historically betrayed San Diegans regarding El Monte Land. The El Monte land sits above our aquifer. Do not put San Diego’s water at risk.” She noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, public spaces have become more valuable. She urged supervisors to buy the land in “the most beautiful valley we’ve got. Our Yosemite,” she said, a reference to the valley’s towering mountain known as El Capitan after the Yosemite landmark.

“Star Ranch is an hour away,” she said of the Campo site Anderson had proposed buying. “We prefer our local trails in El Monte. I paid more per acre for my ranch in El Monte than the reasonable appraisal price you got. Homes in El Monte sell for up to one and a half million dollars. El Monte is high value land area.”

She added that the Pillsburys and Lakeside River Conservatory keeps trails clean, also noting that the site is home to endangered species. 

“Supervisor Jacob worked for us for 27 years. She knows land value. She knew exactly what her constituents want. She put this together.  It was unanimously approved. San Diego wants this new Board to know how valuable the land in El Monte is. This El Monte parcel was appraised under value. It’s a great deal,” Bingham concluded.

Photo,left by Miriam Raftery: The land owned by Helix Water, now to be acquired by San Diego County

Robin Reardon, Executive Director of the Lakeside River Park Conservancy, said she has been working with Helix, and with the other property owners on this land acquisition for approximately five years. She warned that if the county does not buy the land, “I believe the opportunity for first right of refusal by all of our jurisdictions will be closed. That means this property will go on the open market..and all of the other conservancies, such as myself, or the Kumeyaay/Diegueno Conservancy, will be shut out of that process because we will not be able to raise the money fast enough to meet the acquisition target.”

She pointed out, “The last piece of property sold in the El Monte Valley was by the Helix Water District. That acquisition, that sale, was initiated by the sand miners. They wanted more land to sand mine… This IS a way to allow the sand miners to expand their footprint. Make no mistake about it!”

Reardon also confirmed that the sit contains many endangered and threatened species, offering to provide a list of these. The property was once proposed for inclusion in the County’s Multiple Species Conservation Program but was withdrawn by Helix Water when it earlier sought to convert the site to a golf course, before selling it to a sand miner, she told the board.

Michael Beck, a county planning commission, spoke as an individual. He urged that if the county buys the land, it should continue the Embery’s  lease and purchase their site if the family ever decides to sell it.

Photo, right by Billy Ortiz: Bobcats in El Monte Valley

Chairman Fletcher thanked all the callers who testified remotely due to COVID-19.

“I believe this WAS a unanimous vote by prior Board, and I appreciate there are new Supervisors that were not here, and perhaps old Supervisors who have changed their mind,” Fletcher said. “But I continue to believe that this is an important component of a broader effort around preserving open space and investing in a piece of land that has tremendous connectivity with our trail systems, and has a great restorative effect, and is part of a broader effort around the San Diego river and San Diego River Conservancy projects.”

Fletcher continued, “We have the ability to take what is clearly a property that has distress…and really make it something very wonderful for the community. I also appreciate and respect how important this is to our tribal community, and our tribal partners in the Kumeyaay. So I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to preserving an open space, and doing something that I think for many, many decades down the line. If we are successful, people will look back and say that ‘they got it right.’”

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer acknowledged the testimony as well as the petition and march in support of the purchase. “ I am inspired by this outpouring of public support. I think the public and e-comments are really a tribute to how precious and how sacred the value and this parcel, specifically, are to the people of Lakeside,” she said, adding, “I do very much want to thank the residents of Lakeside, and the Kumeyaay nation, for their enduring commitment to preserve and protect the El Monte Valley, which is one of our county’s true hidden jewels.”

Photo, left: Hundreds marched to save El Monte Valley last Saturday.

“Towards that end,” Supervisor Lawson-Remer continued, “I would like to make a substitute motion that we move ahead to approve the acquisition of the Helix parcel as originally outlined in the original Board items submitted for our approval today.”

The motion was seconded by Supervisor Nora Vargas.

Supervisor Jim Desmond said, “It doesn’t sit right with me that we’re having to clean up land that somebody else didn’t take care of.”

Chairman Fletcher responded by likening this effort to what the Board did with a water project in Borrego, which is in Desmond’s district.

Supervisor Anderson then said, “I want to work on projects together, with everybody. I will be willing to withdraw my motion if we’re willing to put the full $9 million in for restorations. What I’m worried about is, we buy it, I’m stuck with a blight, the Board now loses its interest, and we’re no further ahead, except that we now own this land that’s absolutely useless in its condition. It strikes me that if we’re going to do it, and you all feel so strongly about it, we should be fully committed and finance the whole thing.”

Anderson added, “I want to hold Helix responsible for the blight. To fix it. I’m not opposed to working with them, but I don’t think that county taxpayers should be subsidizing what Helix Water District ratepayers should be responsible for it…That’s the rub for me.”

Chairman Fletcher then asked counsel for options. Counsel replied that the Board could “change the level of improvement, but not within the scope of today’s noticed hearing, so you would need to do that at future Board meeting.”

Supervisor Anderson then asked if the board could come back with a proposal they could all agree on and deliver for his constituents.

Chairman Fletcher committed to working with Supervisor Anderson to draft a Board letter to make those investments at the next scheduled Board meeting. “I do think it’s important. We want to deliver something great for the community, and you have my commitment. I want this to really be improved, and a great asset in your district,” he said.

But Chairman Fletcher made clear, “Today, I think it’s important that we move forward with the purchase, and then we rapidly get to work on making sure the commitment of the promise is fulfilled.”

Supervisor Anderson withdrew his motion, after asking for agreement from Desmond.

Supervisor Lawson-Remer also expressed her commitment to working with Anderson to securing the needed funding. Lawson-Remer mentioned that there were also additional sources of funding that can be pursued for restoration outside county budget; and her willingness to “chase down that money and bring it home to your district.”

The motion to purchase the 98 acres was then passed unanimously.

The community’s overwhelming support and Anderson’s shift to support the project in response, also gaining a commitment for broader funding from cooperative colleagues on the board, illustrated that our democratic process is robust at the local level. 

As the saying goes, “Everyone wants to do the right thing, but what’s the right thing?” That’s the dilemma that every election official must address.

In an email to constituents afterwards, Supervisor Anderson wrote, ““While I would have preferred the Helix Water District, the current owners, funded all of these upgrades, I am pleased that my colleagues did not simply buy the land and leave my District with an eyesore. They committed to bring back a plan to fund the $6 million.”

Barona tribal member Bobby Wallace, a co-organizer of efforts to Save El Monte Valley along with Lakeside resident Billy Ortiz, posted on Facebook, “We made a difference for all people's, the Ancestors and the El Monte Valley/San Diego River. Thank you everyone who was there, and prayers from those who couldn't make it. It was YOU that made a difference. Much love and respect to you all. “

Watch Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting at:

Dr. Henri Migala is the founder of Henri Migala Photography. He has won numerous photography awards and most recently had one of his images chosen as a “Top 10” finalist  in the  Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest out of 48,000 submissions.  The independent photojournalist has previously provided coverage for ECM on a wide range of topics including wildfires, protests, and superblooms in the Anza-Borrego desert.

He has lived and worked in 15 countries in global health, international development, higher education administration and humanitarian aid including disaster relief. His past positions include Director of  International House at the University of California San Diego, Executive Dean and Grants Administrator for Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, and Adjunct Faculty instructor at San Diego City College. He holds a doctor of education degree from San Diego State university, a Masters in Public Health from the University of North Texas, and a Master of Art degree at the University of Texas, where he studied anthropology. A volunteer and board member with Aguilas del Desierto, Inc., he helps save the lives of lost migrants. As a Rotary Club President, he has  worked with International Relief Teams.  He speaks three languages (English, Spanish and French) and has won many awards for community service and international activities include working to eradicate polio through the World Health Organization, as well as participating in rural, border and cross-cultural health issues, disaster relief and reconstruction.  Dr. Migala has published numerous academic papers and written nearly $30 million in grants that have been funded. 

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Environmental groups rarely credit Republicans for their leadership on conservation and, because of that hostility, seldom find conservatives willing to engage with them.

Good on Supervisor Joel Anderson

Nothing but praise here for Joel Anderson. I had really underestimated him in an earlier comment, and just really applaud my supervisor for coming through for his constituents. As a voter, this is the kind of thing we long remember. Could this be the start of a legacy that could look like Dianne Jacob's? She is still exceedingly popular in the district for her conservation efforts. I note the root of conservation is in fact, conservative. Well done sir!