The Lakeside River Irregulars

— To get to Lisa Roger's house in the Eucalyptus Hills area of Lakeside, you have to drive past the sand-mining operations, tractor-repair yards, and prefab concrete outfits that line the San Diego River in this unincorporated East County community. It's these lots that I've driven out here to talk to her about. "We moved here from University City three years ago," Rogers says. "We liked the space you could find out here and the natural beauty of the hills. I had a hard time getting over the unsightliness you see when you get off the freeway, but my husband said, 'It's going to change.' "

The direction of that change will largely be determined on October 15 when the San Diego County Planning Commission decides how to zone the Lakeside river front. "M-54, that's what the landowners want." Rogers says. "We want anything but M-54."

Rogers, tall and tan, wears her long brown hair pulled straight back into a ponytail. With her two-year-old daughter Kylie in tow, she stands at her dining room window, looking south over Lakeside. Across the valley, houses cover the hills. A line of closely growing trees meandering through the middle of the valley marks the path of the San Diego River channel. Clouds of dust float up behind bulldozers and front loaders plowing back and forth over the sand-mining areas along the river. Rogers points in that direction. "The people who own the land by the river, Lakeside Land Company, Cal-Mat, and a few others, want the M-54 zoning, which allows outdoor storage. There are very few places left in the county that are zoned M-54. Why? Because it's so hideous? And that's what they want to put here."

In an effort to prevent the M-54 zoning, Rogers and a small group of other Lakeside residents have been collecting petition signatures from residents. ("We have over 500 signatures so far," she says.) One of this small group is her friend Bill, not his real name, who lives in another part of Lakeside. When he shows up at her house, we all climb into Rogers's Ford Aerostar and set off for a closer look at the situation. Following Bill's directions, she steers the mini-van up a steep, narrow road to a vista point straight up a hill to the northwest of where Highway 67 changes from freeway to two-lane highway. Hopping out, Bill and I walk to the edge. Handing me a pair of binoculars, he points toward a small lake on the other side of the river, a little upstream. "See that pond? That's ground water. That's an old sand pit that they didn't fill in." He directs me to pan right, downstream. "What they're doing where you see that big bare area near the river is mining sand. Normally, they dig a big pit and take the sand out of it, and as they do that, they bring in material from all over San Diego County and adjacent counties by the truckload and fill the pit back up so when they're done, it looks like this."

He points due south to a flat piece of land down the hill in front of us. It's fenced; tractors, trucks, and random piles of metal and scrap sit on bare ground. "That's M-54. They already took out the sand, dug down into the ground, into the ground water, which is only 15 feet below the floor of this whole valley. Then they dumped truckloads of material back in and reclaimed the land. Now they've got a flat piece of property that they can put all these junk piles on."

Between the sand mines and the junkyard is a golf course -- Willowbrook Country Club -- which, in its verdure, stands out from the scraped earth all around it. "That could be what Lakeside could all look like around this river valley," Bill says. "It could be beautiful. Willowbrook wants to expand. Let's let them expand and make some more of this valley beautiful. Lakeside is in desperate need of athletic fields. The soccer organization here has over a thousand kids playing soccer. There are always five teams practicing at any one time on the few fields we have. And game days, the fields are used up all day long. So let's build fields down there instead of putting junkyards in. We could have something similar to Robb Field in Ocean Beach. It would be beautiful, and people would come from all over the county for tournaments and that sort of thing and spend money in Lakeside.

"Ten years ago," Bill continues, "we were promised a river park. Not a Wet 'n' Wild kind of thing, but a park with trails and access to the river. Kind of a nature park. That would be wonderful too. And I'd like to see them not fill in these sand pits so we could have lakes in Lakeside, like the one over there." He points to the pond we started with. "See, right now Lakeside is at a crossroads. We could go one way and make it beautiful or the other way and make it worse than it is now. Because as soon as they put that M-54 zoning in there, Lakeside is not going to look very nice. Picture this big expanse of land along the river." He makes a sweeping gesture over the valley in front of us. "They want to make the whole River Valley, from the Rodeo Grounds to Santee, M-54. What would it look like if all that area was covered with outdoor storage, yard junk?"

The question floats out over the valley, unanswered. As we walk back toward the van, Bill points southwest to a long hill next to the San Diego River where it flows from Lakeside into Santee. "We're going to go walk up that hill over there," he says. "It'll put things in perspective."

The drive to the base of the hill takes us through an odd assortment of Lakeside neighborhoods. The quarter-million-dollar homes on the hillside give way to junkyards at the bottom of the hill. As we travel southwest the junkyards give way to tract homes near Willowbrook Golf Course. After the golf course, we drive through an area where homes in various states of repair sit next door to storage lots full of old car parts, broken-down tractors, and aging RVs. We reach the base of the hill, which stands at the east terminus of Mast Avenue. After parking, Rogers puts Kylie in a backpack carrier and the four of us set off up the steep asphalt path to the top of the hill. Broken beer bottle glass crunches beneath our feet as we walk. We reach the top at 9:45 a.m. It's already 90 degrees -- it will top out over 100 later. Seven black turkey vultures circle overhead. Another three roost on a round water tank nearby. We stand, panting and sweating, facing Northeast up the valley of Lakeside. Directly below, at the foot of the hill lies a sand-mining area, about 50 acres. Beyond that is another sand-mining operation. In the middle of the first mining lot lies a water-filled sand pit about the size of three football fields. At the far end, a truck dumps a load of soil on the bank of the mini-lake while a yellow front loader pushes mounds of dirt into the water, disturbing its placid surface. "They should be required," Bill says, interrupted by his own heavy breathing, "to leave the ponds there. Instead they're being filled with untested material."

To our right, the San Diego River, here dammed into a long pond by an earthen berm, runs along the base of the hill. Bill hands me a pair of binoculars and points to a few lots on the opposite bank of the river. Each lot is a mixture of outdoor storage and some warehouse buildings. Ten carefully parked yellow bobtail trucks give one away as a Ryder truck rental yard. "To the left of the Ryder company," Bill says, "can you see the pile of tractor parts lying outside? Those parts are lying out there in the rain, no containment, and all the oils wash down into the river or seep into the groundwater. We don't want that kind of storage in Lakeside. It's wrong for the area. But that's what they want to do with this whole valley. They want to fence off the whole river area -- there would be no public access to the river -- and then rent lots to different people, for instance, maybe a pool plastering company, or forklift repair; maybe a painting contractor comes with all his paints and solvents. All that stuff will be seeping into the ground, and the whole area will look terrible.

"Now," Bill turns and faces southwest, "turn around and look at Santee. They've got the river running through here. They got some business-park buildings along the river. There's Santana High School, a shopping mall. They've got fields. They've got a lot of open space. They've got nice housing tracts. It's planned; they know what they're doing. They're focused, and they're controlling it. Over in Lakeside it's completely out of control. 'It's you [landowners] control it. You want M-54, you've got it.' "

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