It's only 35 or 40 minutes from downtown San Diego to the junction of Interstate 8 and State Route 79. And just a couple of minutes north of there lies the rural town of Descanso. In many urban centers, particularly in California, that's not a bad commute time. And from the East County cities of El Cajon, Santee, and La Mesa, the drive to Descanso is even shorter.
That fact, combined with the beauty of the area, makes Descanso next in line to be covered by the eastward crawl of development that already blankets most of Alpine, the next town to the west. And, according to Jo Ellen Hucker, who lives in Descanso and serves on the area's community planning board, a sense that the place is threatened grows daily among Descanso residents.
Highway 79, Viejas Boulevard, and Riverside Drive form a roughly equilateral triangle — three or four miles per side — known locally as the Descanso Loop. Inside the loop, Descanso Creek and Samagaluma Creek flow east to west. Near the west end of the loop, they join with the Sweetwater River as it curves eastward before turning again to the southwest on its way to Chula Vista. In the same corner of the loop — where Riverside Drive meets Viejas Boulevard, and Viejas Grade Road strikes the loop from the west — sits the town of Descanso. Hucker, a kind-faced brunette about 40 years old, starts her tour at the southern end of the triangle at the corner of Riverside Drive and highway 79. This is the part of town that Julian-bound day-trippers pass through. On the west side of the highway stand John's Auto Garage and the Descanso Junction restaurant. On the east a few houses cling to the steep, oak-covered hillside. "I want to start you here to give you your bearings," says Hucker, as she steers her compact sport utility vehicle north up the winding highway. "Just up the road here is the Oaks."
The Oaks, a proposed recreational vehicle park and campground, is the latest in a litany of developments planned for Descanso. So far none have succeeded, due in large part to the efforts of Hucker and Duncan McFetridge, president of a conservationist group called Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, who is also in the car. He's a fit, wiry, goateed man in his 50s, decked with a wide-brimmed hat. When the oak forest on both sides of the road opens up into grassland, McFetridge says, "All of this on the right up to the base of the mountain there is supposed to become camping and septic systems." Over a little rise and through a patch of forest, and the road enters another meadow. A dozen brown-and-white cows nibble on the grass, which winter rain (and snow) have greened. "On this meadow," McFetridge says, "is going to be a store, a meeting hall...a bunch of stuff is planned for this spot. It's a huge complex."
The Oaks is being proposed by Charles Grant, owner of Pure-Flo water systems in San Diego. Zoning for the area doesn't allow for such development, but the project could be built if the county granted a major-use permit to Grant. So far none has been awarded, and the decision to do so has been delayed, at least in part due to opposition from Hucker and others on the local planning board and legal pressure brought to bear by McFetridge.
Across the highway from the site stands a luxury log cabin home that must be close to 3000 square feet. "This morning, I spoke to the people who own that home," Hucker says. "They're not happy about what's planned for across the street here. They wouldn't object to someone putting a home in, but an RV park..."
As Hucker continues north, McFetridge says, "Descanso is really an old cattle-ranching community. When I moved here 16 years ago it was still like...indigenous people here." McFetridge laughs at his own choice of words. "I mean, these guys were cowboys. A lot of them were born on these old ranches. At that time, the old-timers here were pretty strong. But you go through changes. There are still a lot of old-timers here, but it's becoming a bedroom community. It's changing because it's an incredible location."
There's no arguing that statement. Descanso sits on a mountain plateau just at the point where oak woodlands and pine woodlands mingle. And inside the loop, where the three creeks run, live, valley, and Engelmann oaks dot an otherwise open grassland.
At the east corner of the loop, Hucker turns left onto Viejas Boulevard. On the right lies a long, flat horse pasture surrounded by a white rail fence. Alongside the pasture runs a road named Maggio. "This is an old subdivision that was tried but didn't make it," McFetridge says. "It was called Maggio Ranch. They wanted to put in 47 homes here." He points to the left side of the road. "A man named Robert Merigan owns this 500 acres in the center of the loop to our left here."
"At the planning group meeting in August or September," Hucker says, "he came on to the agenda requesting a letter from the planning group supporting his project." Merigan didn't get the support from the Descanso planning group. But the latest version of the county's General Plan 2020, which has yet to be finalized and adopted, may offer some solace to him. "This entire [roughly 50-acre] piece to the right is zoned one-dwelling-unit-per-acre in the latest GP 2020 map," Hucker says. "And Merigan just built this brand-new home here. I think he wants to add on to this residential section right here. I think the county is going to give him his project here."
Just past the new house, the road leaves the open meadow and enters more oak woods. Under these oaks, 100 cabinlike houses are tucked into half- and quarter-acre lots. Smoke curls out of many of the chimneys. "These houses," Hucker says, "are on our little Descanso Water District. This and another little pocket are the densest areas of Descanso."
"These days," McFetridge adds, "one dwelling per acre is the minimum for country towns. But traditionally, you had quarter-acre zoning like these homes in here. The problem with that is with septic systems. It is very hard to fit a septic system on a quarter acre. And everything is septic in this area."
Where Viejas Boulevard bends around to the south, a little shopping center and business-park center pops up on the left. In it are the water district office and Perkins' Hay and Feed Store. "If you knew nothing about Descanso and you wanted to find something out," McFetridge says, "you'd go to the hay and feed store, because they know everyone in town."
It's also the geographical center of town. Nearby are the Descanso elementary school, the Descanso library, the post office, and a small grocery store. The old town hall, built in 1896, is a half mile to the west on Viejas Grade, which once was part of the only east-west highway connecting San Diego and Imperial Counties. It's a wooden post-and-beam building painted white, with a steep roof and a covered porch. "We have done a lot of work on this in the last few years," Hucker says. "That is where we do our planning-group meetings. We have an annual fair here and a parade, and the kids have dances here."
Near the junction of Viejas Grade and Riverside Drive is the second cluster of 100 or so quarter-acre lots in Descanso. "These were summer homes in the good old days," McFetridge says. "I like this little hamlet, because they are not all the same; everybody has their own unique thing going on. Not that long ago," McFetridge continues, "before the interstate was built, this was really backcountry. With the old roads, Old Highway 80, getting up here was quite a trip. But once you made it here, the mountain kind of leveled off. It was a natural spot to stop. So they built an old hotel, and a general store opened up, and people built these summer cabins."
Those cabins are on the Descanso Water District, which pumps water up from beneath the mountain. No water is imported. "This water district that we have," Hucker says, steering her Toyota along a rutted dirt road among the former summer cabins, "is extremely hard pressed right now to keep water going just to the existing homes in the district."
Back on Riverside Drive heading southeast toward the junction with Highway 79, Hucker points to yellow flowers blooming in abundance on the dirt shoulder of the road. "We have a little daffodil-planting program each fall," she explains. "Whoever wants to can donate a little money for daffodil bulbs, or donate their time to plant them. Each kid at the elementary school plants a couple, which puts in about 200 or 300 right there."
Back at the Descanso Junction restaurant, Hucker parks while McFetridge lays out a history of anti-development fights in Descanso. "The big push," he recalls, "which started in 1990, was to develop the freeway interchange leading into Descanso, off of Interstate 8. It was a huge development: 125 homes, 60,000 square feet of commercial. That was stopped."
Asked how, he responds, "We challenged the environmental impact report with the same lawyers that we are working with now on the Oaks. And then in 1993 we got a countywide initiative passed that changed the zoning on all the privately owned ranchland within the Cleveland National Forest. It placed a one-dwelling-per-40-acres restriction on the land. And the government finally bought the land next to the interchange.
"At one point," McFetridge continues, "15 or 20 years ago, Ramada Inns wanted to build something out here. There have been plans to subdivide the ranches and build berms along the highway. And just recently, there was a plan to build a big spa called Stallion Oaks on the west end of town. That died."
When asked for the cause of death, McFetridge responds, "We're fighters out here. We won in court with a general plan-consistency lawsuit. And that's what we're doing with Grant and the Oaks. What these people are trying to do is get major-use permits to do things that the zoning wouldn't allow. But there is a little clause in there that says that these developments have to be consistent with the general plan, and that is where we drive in the stake."