San Diego 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.