Squawk Like a Hawk

— Last November Rolando Park residents formed the Rolando Park Community Council to address concerns such as stop signs and red curbs on their streets. Now the council's top priority is to fight the possible loss of a neighborhood school. Due to declining enrollments throughout the district, San Diego City Schools in early June selected Rolando Park Elementary School, along with two other schools, for possible closure in 2005. The two others are Crown Point Elementary in Pacific Beach and Barnard Elementary in Point Loma. The district will decide the fate of all three schools on November 9.

J. P. LaMontagne, who is director of gift and estate planning for Sharp Health Care Foundation, presides over Rolando Park Community Council and puts out its monthly newsletter, The Rolando Park Reporter. Just as LaMontagne was mustering some organized resistance to a potential school closure, the Canyon Defense League of Rolando Park, an ad hoc organization, blindsided him. The group wanted to publish a short article by Jim Dickinson, one of its members, in the newsletter. The article explained the formation of the defense league and announced an upcoming walk through Zena Canyon to be led by the San Diego Sierra Club. LaMontagne refused to take the article.

It turns out the issues of Rolando Park Elementary's closing and Zena Canyon's defense are related: the school's buildings and playgrounds sit on the edge of Zena Canyon. The school resides on property consisting of over 26 acres, 14 of which are unoccupied land in the canyon. What many local residents fear is that the closing of Rolando Park Elementary School is the beginning of opening the canyon to urban development. At the monthly Rolando Park Community Council meeting on June 17, president LaMontagne dismissed questions about the danger of development in Zena Canyon. His reasoning, according to Jim Dickinson and others, was that the community needs to remain unified in its opposition to the school district's plans and not splinter into competing groups with different interests. In "The Prez Sez" column of the July newsletter, LaMontagne again urged that the community come together.

"We love our canyon," says Alicia Navor, whose house on Billman Street overlooks Zena Canyon from its western side. "We want to protect its different species of plants and wildlife." Navor and Dickinson say the canyon is home to a group of two dozen coyotes. They say it also has red-tailed and Cooper's hawks, foxes, and opossums.

"I'm an instigator," says Dickinson. He and his wife Vicki also live on Billman Street, and their back yard slopes halfway down the Zena Canyon hillside. The Dickinsons printed and distributed throughout Rolando Park the flyer that first invited neighbors to join the Canyon Defense League. "But the league is strictly libertarian," says Jim Dickinson, "in that it has no officers, it will dissolve when no longer needed, and everybody gets to speak their own mind. Right now we need to speak loudly." The last words of his organizational flyer are "Squawk like a hawk, howl like a coyote, bite like a snake! No development, no way!!"

But "the fears have been unjustified," says LaMontagne. "What happened is that a panic reaction set in. The school sent a letter home with the kids saying it might close in a year or two. Then, an article appeared in the Union-Tribune talking about school superintendent Alan Bersin's Foundation for Teacher Housing."

Written by Maureen Magee on June 23, the article began, "To help teachers hurt by the region's housing crisis, the San Diego Unified School District may build apartments on unused property to give its lowest-paid educators a decent place to live at an affordable price."

On Saturday, July 10, Eric Bowlby and Carrie Schneider led a group of 40 Rolando Park residents on a three-hour walk through Zena Canyon. Bowlby is the San Diego Sierra Club's canyon-campaign coordinator, and Schneider is president of the California Native Plant Society's local chapter. The two emphasized a crucial environmental contribution canyons make. Dirty runoff from San Diego's streets leaves its pollutants in canyon soil as the waters flow toward the ocean.

On their walk, "We also saw lots of native plants," says Bowlby, "such as laurel sumac, lemonade berry bushes, and cholla cactus." Vicki Dickinson notes, however, that all but James Budlove, among members of the community council, were "conspicuously absent" from the walk.

Still, the Canyon Defense League's activities and loud voices must have had an effect. I went to the July 15 monthly meeting of the Rolando Park Community Council. At the meeting, J. P. LaMontagne announced that protecting Zena Canyon had become the council's second priority after saving Rolando Park Elementary School. Previously the canyon's defense had not appeared anywhere on the council's list of priorities. Also, Debbi Blake, an early participant in the defense league, assumed leadership of the council's new Zena Canyon task force.

Blake now also heads up Friends of Zena Canyon. The new organization replaces the Canyon Defense League of Rolando Park, which dissolved in July. Eric Bowlby helped establish Friends of Zena Canyon as one of 23 friends-of-canyon groups that the Sierra Club's canyon campaign sponsors locally. "There are dozens of canyons in San Diego," he says. "They make the city unique in having a dispersed natural habitat in the urban environment."

Despite a greater openness to the canyon issue in the leadership of the Rolando Park Community Council, when the July meeting ended, I listened to half a dozen people grumble about a secret agenda they suspected J. P. LaMontagne shares with the group's vice president, Lee Rittiner, a San Diego contractor.

Before moving to Rolando Park in 2003, Rittiner was vice president of the community council in Darnall, adjacent to Rolando Park on its western side. Currently Rittiner also serves as a board member of the Eastern Area Community Planning Council, which represents both Darnall and Rolando Park. Rittiner says that the reason he takes so many leadership roles is that "nobody else in the community is willing to do it." His work as a contractor, he says, is confined primarily to the remodeling of residential units. "I now have an 800-square-foot house that I'm turning into 1400 square feet. It will make a nice place for somebody to live," says Rittiner.

Realtor Rene McMillen shares the house with Rittiner. She also has the office of secretary of the Rolando Park Community Council. In an advertisement for her real estate services, her picture appears on the council's website. J. P. LaMontagne and Lee Rittiner "don't share information," says Debbi Blake. "Why can't any of the rest of us go to the meetings with the school district? I don't trust them to get it right," she says in reference to discussions LaMontagne and Rittiner have had with school-district officials. At the July 15 community council meeting, Rittiner did report on his latest discussions with the district. But when the meeting reached the time for response by the community, president LaMontagne offered the group a chance only to make statements of opinion. He said he hoped that the meeting's reports made even those unnecessary. But "no questions," said LaMontagne from his podium.

Yet after Debbi Blake researched the zoning of Zena Canyon, Lee Rittiner "now wants me to help him," she says. "He showed up at my door unannounced. He has been looking up the zoning situation and said he is very worried. He doesn't think the city knows what is going on and asked if I had any new information."

But when I ask Rittiner about the canyon's recent zoning history, he says he doesn't think there is anything to worry about. "They might be able to put one house on the entire property Rolando Park Elementary owns," he says. A check with Marlon Pangilinan in the city of San Diego's planning department supports this view. In 2000, the city rezoned the school's canyon land from R-1-40000, one residence on 40,000 square feet, to OR-1-1, or open-space residential. According to Pangilinan, such zoning would allow only one residential unit per 10 acres of the school's 14 acres of open-space canyon.

Since developers can always seek a zoning change at city hall, the greatest fear of Friends of Zena Canyon is that condominiums still might go up in their canyon. A rumor went around Rolando Park earlier this summer that the school district seeks a place to build low-income housing for teachers.

So Billman Street resident Lois Gage requested help from District 7 councilman Jim Madaffer. She reports, however, that Chris Matter in the councilman's office told her that the school district, not the city, had jurisdiction over potential development of school land. "You'd better back right up," Gage says she told Matter. "When it's a zone change, it's in your office. Mr. Madaffer better pay attention to his constituents over here."

According to Konstance Mitchell, a Darnall resident and member of the Eastern Area Community Planning Council, a possible parallel to what is now beginning in Rolando Park did occur in the early 1980s. Darnall School's property was a 1951 donation by former San Diego City Schools boardmember Orton Darnall, with a proviso that the district never sell it. To get around that, says Mitchell, the district "traded" some of the school's land for other property. Then condos went up on what had been school property.

"We tried to stop it," says Mitchell. "But by the time we found out what was happening, it was a done deal. Then, within a year's time, the condos became apartments."

San Diego City Schools director of parent and community involvement Tom Mitchell says that the district is not considering sale of Rolando Park Elementary for development of condos or of anything else. Instead, he maintains, the district will use the site for other uses of its own, if it decides this November to close the school. With Darnall in mind, however, Friends of Zena Canyon is remaining alert.

They don't want to wake up some morning to a "done deal." Eric Bowlby of the Sierra Club adds fuel to their anxiety. When I ask him who poses the greatest threats to San Diego's canyons, he names San Diego City Schools. The district is now planning a school in South Park's 32nd Street Canyon. "We can't stop them," says Bowlby. "But we do think we were successful in negotiating with them not to fill in the canyon's streambed."

Meanwhile, Debbi Blake is working to increase membership in Friends of Zena Canyon and to get the city to increase the canyon's protection. Currently the canyon has a city classification of "designated open space." Developers can build on land in that category if they meet higher standards of environmental protection than those covering undesignated areas. So Blake is appealing to the city to classify Zena Canyon as "dedicated open space." Land in that category cannot be touched by developers.

Lee Rittiner tells me he thinks someone already tried that tactic five to seven years ago -- and it failed. The prospect of failure is not likely to deter Debbi Blake, however. She notes that the leaders of the Rolando Park Community Council "have been awfully quiet lately. They think we are going away, but we are not."

But community council president LaMontagne was busy arranging for this year's school board candidates to come to his August 19 meeting. Five out of six came to speak against the closing of Rolando Park Elementary. "I had to pull the fragmented groups in our community together," says LaMontagne. "And I think we've convinced them that we have no designs on the canyon."

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