By Miriam Raftery
It's been a tumultuous year for East County and the nation. Here are our choices for the most important news stories of 2008 that had broad impacts on San Diego's eastern region--from heartwarming to heart-wrenching. (Note: watch for a separate "East County Newsmakers" feature next week on individuals making a difference in our region, for better or for worse.)
We couldn't resist adding a few snarky comments--and some probing questions. Starting with this one: aren't you glad this year is finally over?
1. FIRE PROTECTION FOR REGION STILL A BURNING ISSUE
In December, our cash-strapped state slashed winter fire protection for our region. Fire officials are doing their best with less--and hoping it's enough. . A blistering Grand Jury report this year accused civic leaders of failing to properly protect the public from wildfires. Wildfire preparedness (or lack thereof) is clearly the hottest story of the year.
After suffering the worst fires in California history--twice (in 2003 and 2007), San Diego County and the City of San Diego have made some improvements. Our region has more fire-fighting helicopters and night-flying aircraft, upgraded communications, and the County has approved regional fire consolidation in concept. But we remain the only major county in California with no countywide fire department. Voters were understandably mistrustful after a prior bond measure promised fire protection but resulted in funds spent on police instead. So they voted "no" on Prop A, the parcel tax initiative on November's ballot that aimed to fund firefighting and consolidation of fire districts. People vented their anger at the polls--and politicians promptly axed fire resources even more.
So what's our backup plan? Pray for more rain.
A firestorm of controversy: still no county fire department five years after Cedar blaze
First phase of fire reorganization plan approved
Voters reject Prop A
Fire chief, city and county leaders debate pros and cons of fire tax
Historic agreement signed
State cuts fire staffing due to budget crisis
County announces plan to keep fire stations open
2. RECESSION HITS EAST COUNTY WITH A WALLOP
Poverty and hunger are up sharply in East County, where the national recession is taking a harsh toll. One of every 18 households in San Diego County filed for foreclosure in 2008. Many local businesses have also been forced to close their doors. Countywide, nearly 7% of people are unemployed and demand at food banks is up 50%. In La Mesa, where hungry seniors in walkers and wheelchairs wait over five hours in line at a food bank (photo), requests for food jumped 103% in three months. El Cajon had the county's highest poverty rate (20.6%) last year, a figure that has no doubt worsened as the economy has tanked.
At least we've got sunshine to keep us from resembling a dreary Dickens' tale--until the next time it rains.
3. APPROVAL OF SUNRISE POWERLINK SPARKS CONTROVERSY
No issue has divided East County residents more in recent memory than Sunrise Powerlink, the Sempra Energy/SDG&E plan to march high-voltage lines through East County's rural, mountain and desert communities. Environmentalists and community activists scored a victory in keeping the route out of the nza-Borrego Desert State Park. But in December, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a southern route, siding with business concerns over opponents who presented arguments for meeting our region's power needs through clean, locally generated "green" energy. SDG&E promises it will provide some power from renewable energy sources.
So why didn't the CPUC require the utility company to honor that pledge?
4. HOMELAND SECURITY WAIVES ALL LAWS TO BUILD BORDER WALL
In an unprecedented action, Homeland Security declared in April that it would waive all laws to speed construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in five states, including California. The list includes more than 30 laws protecting the environment, endangered species, migratory birds, the bald eagle, antiquities, farms, deserts, forests, Native American graves and religious freedom. East County's borders have swiftly become national news.
The hastily-built barrier has been blamed on causing floods, harming wildlife and desecrating sacred sites. Yet ironically, our weak economy is causing immigrants to go home and illegal immigration rates to plunge.
Wouldn't an environmental impact report be a sensible first step before paving over several thousand miles?
4. STATE REPORT BLAMES POWERLINES FOR WILDFIRES;
STATE, COUNTY & OTHERS SUE UTILITY COMPANIES
At least 40 lawsuits have been filed against SDG&E and/or Cox Communications after a state report faulted power lines owned by SDG&E/Sempra Energy for causing arcing that ignited dry brush, causing at least three of the devastating 2007 wildfires. SDG&E denies blame. Cox insists that its cable, implicated in one of the fires, loosened only after being struck by an SDG&E line. Meanwhile, burned up residents and cash-strapped public officials seek to recover assets lost in smoke.
The legal issues raise another smoldering question: why should consumers trust SDG&E to protect public safety if Sunrise Powerlink is built?
6. BLACKWATER BACKS DOWN
It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. People in the small town of Potrero organized to halt Blackwater, the private contractor described by author Jeremy Scahill as "the world's largest private mercenary army." Officially, Blackwater cancelled its plan to build a private military training camp amid protected wilderness lands because the cost to comply with noise requirements was too high. But many believe the noise raised by citizens opposed to the project played the biggest role in keeping Blackwater out of East County's backcountry. Blackwater later opened an indoor shooting range in Otay Mesa--a much smaller-scale project in an industrial park.
Who needs a slingshot when ordinary citizens can draw global media attention to defeat a giant?
7. WIND FARM FANS CONTROVERSY
A proposed to build a wind farm with 400-foot-high wind turbines in McCain Valley has area residents tilting at windmills, figuratively speaking. Proponents espouse the merits of locally-generated energy from a renewable resource that doesn't contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. But opponents cite concerns over visual blight, impact on birds and bats, impact of low-frequency sound on human health, and potential safety issues from improperly maintained turbines.
Are fears overblown, or are 40-story windmills just too big for the backcountry?
8. HUNTER'S SON WINS SEAT IN CONGRESS
Duncan D. Hunter won his race to fill his father's seat in Congress by a healthy margin of victory over Navy Seal commander Mike Lumpkin. Also a military veteran, Hunter is poised to continue the legacy of his father, retiring Congressman Duncan Hunter, long-time chair of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
But with 45% of voters in his 52nd Congressional district casting votes for Democratic President Barack Obama, just how safe will this seat remain for conservatives in the future?
9. ONLY 9% HAVE REBUILT ONE YEAR AFTER 2007 WILDFIRES
By the anniversary of the Witch Creek, Harris and Poomacha fires, Horno and Rice Canyon Fires that destroyed over 1,600 homes, the vast majority of homeowners had not been able to rebuild. Insurance hassles, lack of coverage, and difficulty finding a contractor were among the reasons cited. Some couldn't afford the cost of meeting new fire and building code requirements.
What will it take to lift more fire survivors up from the ashes?
10. FORECLOSURES FUEL HOUSING PRICE COLLAPSE
Over the past year, the median housing price has plummeted 30% countywide and foreclosures now account for more than half of all homes sold. The writing was on the wall as early as January, when data from 2007 showed foreclosures in East county up 106%--and a whopping 167% in La Mesa's Grossmont community. By November, Campo had the county's highest foreclosure rate at 6.25% of all single-family homes. At year's end, Senator Barbara Boxer released a report which found that one in 18 homes in San Diego County are now at risk of foreclosure.
On the bright side, bargains abound for homebuyers--if you can find a loan amid the credit crunch.
11. HEATED OBJECTIONS RAISED OVER SDG&E PLAN TO CUT POWER
Facing lawsuits over wildfires allegedly caused by its power lines, SDG&E announced plans to shut off power to back country communities during dry, windy conditions. The proposal drew a chilly reception from area residents burned up at the prospect of losing power to homes, businesses and electric-powered wells.
Got candles? Or better yet, solar cells.
12. EAST COUNTY CITIES FACE FISCAL CRUNCH
Plunging car sales, high gas prices, falling sales tax revenues and cuts in state funding have left local cities cash-strapped. El Cajon, virtually broke, joined neighboring La Mesa in coaxing citizens to pass a sales tax increase to fund essential public safety services--leading one conservative councilmember to criticize state legislators for taking the "no new taxes" mantra too far.
Should preserving tax loopholes for yacht owners really take precedence over helping the poor â€“ or at least our cash-strapped cities?
13. IMMIGRANT DEATH TOLL SOARS
A few years ago, there were twenty bricks in the pauper's graveyard at Holtville in Imperial County, final resting ground for immigrants who died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Now there are 656. "These people came here looking for opportunity. Not one of them expected to die," said Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels. The soaring fatality rate is largely an unintended consequence of the border fence, which has forced border crossers eastward into harsh mountain and desert terrain. Sabotage of desert water stations in 100-degree heat may also have killed migrant men, women and children. We arrest and deport immigrants who come here illegally, using high-tech surveillance tools to enforce our laws.
So why can't authorities track down whoever is slashing water bottles and charge them with attempted murder?
Dying to come to America
14. COUNTY TURNS BLUE; EAST COUNTY SEES SHIFT IN PARTY REGISTRATION
Yes, Virginia, there are liberals in East County. La Mesa, along with San Diego County, now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. For the first time since World War II, San Diego County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. In East County, where the GOP previously held 52 of 56 elected offices, Democrats picked up about two dozen seats, though top spots remain under Republican rule. While East County remains a Republican majority, new voter registrations in 2008 ran 10 to 1 Democratic over Republican.
We're neither red nor blue, but a mix of the two: color East County purple.
15. INDIAN GIVING: TRIBES DONATE TO HELP EAST COUNTY
East County residents have suffered the pinch of deep budget cuts in education, healthcare, and fire protection by federal, state and local government. Fortunately, the generosity of our region's Native American tribes has helped to ease that pain. Barona donated $600,000 to local schools this year, Sycuan contributed $300,000 to Grossmont Hospital, while Viejas, Sycuan and Barona all gave funds to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, to name just a few examples.
Whatever your views are on casino gambling, tribal investment in our communities is a good bet.
16. REGIONAL WAKE-UP CALL OFFERS LOCAL BLUEPRINT FOR ADAPTING TO GLOBAL WARMING
Our region will require 37% more water, have 20% longer wildfire seasons, and see portions of San Diego's coastline flood as sea levels rise by a foot or more over the next few decades, according to "A Regional Wake-up Call." The report, issued by top scientists and policy experts, offers the first-ever blueprint for San Diego County on how to adapt to catastrophic changes linked to global climate change.
Bad news for coastal denizens, but will East County become beach front property?
17. EAST COUNTY WORKERS, SCHOOLS, FEEL PAIN OF STATE BUDGET CRISIS
State workers have protested the Governor's order to slash their pay to the federal minimum wage. Months later, legislators remain at a stalemate over the budget, with Democrats calling for an increase in fees or taxes to prevent deep cuts in education, healthcare and social services while Republicans hold the line in opposing raising revenues, insisting on further belt-tightening instead. San Diego State University has cut off automatic transfers from community colleges, leaving even deserving students in the lurch. Now public works projects have been halted--including expansion of Highway 52 in East County.
So much for easing traffic jams. Carpools, anyone?
18. PEOPLE POWER: SUPERVISORS SUPPORT ENABLING HOMEOWNERS TO SELL SURPLUS POWER
What if you could add solar panels or a windmill to your property and sell your extra power back to SDG&E for a profit? San Diego's Board of Supervisors voted to allow just that--provided a state law barring such action is repealed. Fortunately for "green" minded homeowners, a state legislative bill to let homeowners sell surplus power will likely be introduced in 2009.
Now that's what we call "green" profits!
19. ILL AT EASE: PREVENTABLE PATIENT DEATHS AT GROSSMONT HOSPITAL RAISE COMMUNITY CONCERNS
After Grossmont Hospital was fined $25,000 by the state and threatened with loss of Medical and Medicare reimbursement following preventable patient deaths, community residents felt decidedly ill at ease. Although the hospital improved some procedures and ultimately fended off the funding cut-offs, community leaders have called for increased oversight and a new hospital to service East County's growing healthcare needs.
But in an era of scarce funds, that dream appears to be on life support.
Tough Medicine, part I: Grossmont Hospital investigations raise oversight concerns, criticisms
Tough Medicine, part II: Community leaders call for new hospital in East County; long waits at Grossmont ER, patient deaths heighten need
20. FATHER JOE CARROLL WINS 7-YEAR BATTLE TO BUILD RANCH FOR ABUSED & NEGLECTED CHLIDREN NEAR CAMPO
Envisioning a Boys' Town type of facility, Father Joe Carroll spent seven years persuading County Supervisors to approve his vision. He's been called a "huckster" by opponents who feared the project would alter the rural character of this rural area. But ultimately, sentiment for helping troubled kids won out.
It's an ending Oliver Twist would love, even if the neighbors don't.
21. GUHSD: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY
Grossmont Union-High School District continues to generate controversy and consternation. November's election shifted power on the GUHSD board back to Jim Kelly, prompting the San Diego Union-Tribune to observe, "Kelly has a history of showing that he is a trustee not to be trusted. If East County voters care about the education of a generation, they will be wise to watch the Grossmont Union High School District and insist that the will of the voters --Proposition U--be carried out promptly and wisely."
Kelly opposed Prop U (which voters approved to fund renovations of aging schools) and is also against a new high school for Alpine. His campaign mudslinging included claims that incumbent opponents covered up sex charges at Helix High--a claim labeled false by police and Superintendent Bob Collins.
Irate parents and teachers have already threatened a recall to oust Kelly. What's next--tar and feathers?
22. WATER RATIONING LOOMS
Tough to believe after the recent deluge, but San Diego County faces likely water rationing in 2009 following years of drought and prospective cut off of key water supplies. Helix Water District and other water authorities are preparing plans to reward those who conserve water and penalize water hogs.
At least there's one liquid asset we can preserve!
23. CITIZENS DEFEAT "HORNSVILLE"
"You don't get to sneak things onto the general plan. Government is supposed to be transparent, accountable," Valley Center planning group chairman Bill Oliver said at a victory party, where citizens celebrated the defeat of a controversial 3,000-home development nicknamed Hornsville after its proponent, Supervisor Bill Horn. "I'm proud of what all these people did."
Citizensaccused their Supervisor of slipping the project into the General Plan without a vote by the board. Irate residents of the project set up a website (www.hornsville.org) to organize opposition and dubbed a proposed fire access route that sliced through farmlands and dreams "the road to nowhere." In the end, Supervisors voted to remove the controversial entry, at least until a proper submittal is made.
Score one for people who refused to be hornswaggled.
24. NEW EAST COUNTY BUSINESS GROUPS ESTABLISHED
Local merchants are increasingly recognizing the value of professional networking and representation. The past year has seen growth, reshuffling, and birth of several new business associations serving East County.
New groups formed in the past year include the Rancho San Diego-Jamul Chamber of Commerceand the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce. The latter scored a surprise upset, wresting sponsorship of La Mesa's Oktoberfest from the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce. The SDECCC, meanwhile, has powered up its focus from social networking to full-blown business advocacy, offering new activities including a free business seminar and even a trade mission to China. Also new this year is the Alpine Business Networking Group. President Greg Fox has vowed to put the "fun in marketing" through social events, also offering free websites and other help to members. Cheers!
25. INTERIM WINERY ORDINANCE APPROVED
Hoping to revive San Diego's once-b ooming, pre-Prohibition winery industry, San Diego's Board of Supervisors voted to make it easier for vintners to serve samples on their properties. Many have opened tasting rooms in East County, where wine tasting has also swiftly become a popular pastime at street fairs and festivals. Now we can eat, drink and be merry all at the same time. Bon appetit!
San Diego County Winery Ordinance