Squawk Like a Hawk

— 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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