Valley Love

— "I want to see how we might redefine the erotic, how an erotics of place might lead to a politics of place," writes the author/environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams. I was not the only one who fell in love with the Lower Sweetwater Valley. Love is whimsical, and people fall in love according to their fancy. One neighbor loved the way frost and little sheaths of ice gathered each year in the winter shadows of the western slopes. Another neighbor loved the remains of the wooden corral that marks the entrance to the canyon. Another gathered the red berries of the toyon shrub for her holiday table. There used to be so much to love. Early mornings, when the fog was hip deep, out of the coyote-colored brush a coyote would emerge, and the juxtaposition of his timeless yellow eyes with the fast-flying cars would allow me, for a moment, to live in two worlds at once.

The Rosebank community, galvanized by its appreciation of the land in its natural state and indignant about the proposals that would degrade or eradicate it, attended meeting after meeting, pleading with the City to let the valley remain open space. At one Chula Vista City Council meeting, over a hundred of us pinned green silk ribbons that said "Open Space" to our shirts. The Lower Sweetwater Valley Issue paper, prepared by the Chula Vista Planning Commission, recounts the neighborhood's opposition: "In 1990...the City received a petition containing approximately 600 names of residents objecting strongly to the Mobile Home Relocation project.... In December 1993...[at a public forum held at Rosebank school]...a significant amount of discussion occurred...attended by approximately 60 residents, [expressing] a significant interest in preserving the vacant land area within the valley as open space.... At a City Council meeting in February 1994, representatives of the adjacent neighborhood again expresse... their desire for open space within the vacant Lower Sweetwater Valley property.... A petition was submitted signed by over 100 residents, which outlined their desires...." It seems the mayor and the city council had stuffed their ears with wax.

During one pitched battle, the Chula Vista Star News ran a mean-spirited cartoon calling the Rosebank neighborhood NIMBYs because none of the proposals pleased us. Perhaps the cartoonist hadn't grasped how our community had been reconfigured by highways 805 and 54 and the widening of E Street to four lanes. And though affordable housing is necessary in Chula Vista, it was difficult to see the stand of eucalyptus trees that was our eastern border cut down and the huge apartment complex named Eucalyptus Grove constructed. But the real question is, in order to be a good sport, must every back yard in Chula Vista or open space in Southern California be developed?

Who can tell the many ways the natural world feeds us? The Lower Sweetwater Valley has served as a recreational and inspirational resource. One morning I looked up on the levee and saw a colorful line of kindergartners singing to the ducks in the Sweetwater River. Kathy Scott, a teacher from Rosebank School, takes her students out through the canyon several times a year to see the way seasons affect plants, to see the chance rabbit, squirrel, lizard, or red ant. In a time when cows are being transported to playgrounds to show children where milk comes from, a patch of nature is a useful learning tool. Children of all ages stalk lizards in the field, hunt crawdads in the river. Some kids have constructed elaborate bike jumps. Adults walk their dogs, jog, bicycle, birdwatch, and chat with their neighbors. This dwindling open space has functioned as a park -- de facto if not du jour -- for the last 20 years.

Chula Vista's mayor and city council have been so busy enabling the developers they have failed to attend to the older areas in the city. Recently a group of Chula Vista mothers had to go begging for a small scrap of land and a few toys for their children to play on. The mothers were obliged to enlist Michael Turko, the KUSI troubleshooter, to get Mayor Shirley Horton to respond to their request. Chula Vista's Growth Management Plan puts its park threshold at 3 acres per 1000 residents. West of 805, within which the Lower Sweetwater Valley is located, the status is 1.22 acres per 1000. For over ten years the city has noted in its own documents that the Rosebank area is significantly park-deprived. Yet it has allowed 18.4 acres of the Special Study/Open Space area to be sold off to the KOA and allowed the 20 remaining acres to deteriorate.

A new development is afoot...never mind the neighborhood. And from the northern front of this embattled piece of land, just this week I saw a KOA employee measuring the access road that runs along the Sweetwater River. He told me that the city is looking into paving a road and constructing championship playing fields. The valley's last stand? I have a friend, Philip Maechling, who took his Master's in Landscape (Architecture and Regional) Planning at Pennsylvania and worked for the San Diego Planning Department for a few years before returning to Montana. He used to say that it was a forgone conclusion that every inch of coastal San Diego county was going to be developed.

It's time to move. Forget this trashed piece of land and stop making myself sick over it. Besides, if they develop the R-1 strip, the property value of our house will go up. But where can we move to? This is a metaphor for San Diego, for Southern California. At a recent Chula Vista City Council meeting, the council voted 4-1 to give the green light for the first steps toward developing 126 acres of property located near Chula Vista's bay front and the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The project proposes 3400 residential units plus hotels, restaurants, and recreation areas. Councilmember Mary Salas was the only dissenting vote. Mayor Horton has always been eager to develop the bay front and the mid-bay front property held by the San Diego Unified Port District. But who, aside from those who stand to make huge profits, is asking for this property to be developed? Arguing in favor of the development, Horton said, "We have a housing crisis." In reality, we have a water crisis; we have an energy crisis; we have a traffic-gridlock crisis; we have an ozone/air quality crisis; we have an open space/park crisis; we have a leadership crisis.

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