Local land developers, long given free rein by growth-minded politicians and a passive public, have been closely following the attempts of a citizen’s group to halt the construction of a multimillion dollar housing project in the hills of La Mesa. A major turning point in the eight-month controversy is expected soon, as both sides await the results of a hearing which opens tomorrow afternoon in Superior Court.
The subject of the showdown is Helix Lake, an 18.5 acre piece of land bordering a 3.2 acre reservoir. Owned for 14 years by the M.H. Golden Construction Company, one of San Diego’s largest developers, the parcel was left untouched until September of last year when the Golden Co. contracted with RECON, a local engineering firm, for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
An EIR is the first of several steps a developer takes before the actual building can be started.
Part of the report called for soil testing, so in late November a bulldozer was brought in and samples were dug up from an area bordering the lake. This activity was the first indication to surrounding homeowners that the Golden Company had plans to build.
Familiar to many San Diegans, the lake is located on the northern slope of Mt. Helix and is one of the few remaining wildlife sanctuaries in the county. Thirty-six different kinds of plants, nineteen species of birds, including flycatchers, roadrunners and mourning doves, and eight species of fish inhabit the area. Those who frequent the lake have spotted opossum, beaver and grey fox, animals usually found only at bodies of fresh water. The area bordering the water is rich with algae and bulrushes that provide food for almost a hundred different species.
In addition to its ecological uniqueness, the lake has for years been a “Tom Sawyer’s Island,” offering fishing, swimming and rafting.
The history of Helix Lake dates back over 50 years, to the time when La Mesa was a sparsely populated town. The land was given to the Cuyamaca Water Company for ten dollars by Colonel Ed Fletcher, a local philanthropist who at one time owned most of Mt. Helix. In 1926 the newly-created Helix Irrigation District constructed a dam and the natural spring grew into a reservoir.
The District was advised in 1958 that the reservoir was no longer needed, and in March of 1961 homeowners created a board to investigate ways of purchasing the site from the city. But less than four months later 192 residents complained that the necessary tax-hike was too high and signed petitions calling for an election to dissolve the water board.
That September the recall was approved and in October of 1961 the parcel was sold to a bidder who matched the minimum price of $64,500 — the Gorge Construction Co., owned by Kenneth Golden.
The fences Golden built around his newly acquired property posed no problem for adventuresome youngsters, and homeowners in - the area came to see the lake as communal property, using its paths for dog walking and jogging. Then last November the roar of bulldozers broke the peaceful air.
In January of this year the Golden Co. presented to the La Mesa City Planning Commission a preliminary map of the Helix Lake development, detailing the proposed $4.35 million project. It would consist of 29 homes ranging in price from $120,000 to $175,000.
The lake, which holds the delicate ecosystem in balance, was to be drained, dredged and refilled, and the endangered species would be protected by three “mini-sanctuaries” each containing 10,000 square feet of bulrushes for the wildlife to feed on. Though many of the species would be forced out by the temporary draining of the lake, the developers assured the planners that birds and mammals would return to the lake to nest.
Within a month the City Council approved the Golden Company’s plans, leaving only one more hurdle for the developers to clear before actual construction could begin. Since the property was on county land the builders needed approval from the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) that Helix Lake be annexed to the city of La Mesa so streets, lighting and police and fire protection could be provided for the new homes. Annexation was granted by unanimous vote on June 2nd.
On June 13th, despite advice by EIR consultants that the lake be drained only during winter, the Golden Co. started emptying Helix Lake.
Watching from their homes on the hillside above the lake, Rick Adams and Robert Paine have kept close tabs on the developers. Long-time residents of the area, the two men were instrumental in the organization of The Friends of Helix Lake, a group that has sprung up literally overnight.
The Friends are all residents of the exclusive Mt. Helix area, some having lived there over 20 years. Three hundred of them have signed petitions protesting the development, and 100 home-owners have committed themselves to financial support of a plan drawn up to purchase the Helix Lake property.
From 22 year-old Guy Acheson, the spokesman at Planning Commission meetings, to Viola Granstaff, the grand-dame of Mt. Helix who spends her spare hours at the county Recorder's office searching for “escape clauses” in Colonel Fletcher’s original deeds, to Linda Levesque who authors the pamphlets distributed throughout the neighborhood, they cover a wide range of talent and commitment.
Hampered by a late start, which Mrs. Levesque attributes to the fact that “it’s not until the hammer’s hanging over your head that you start to move,” the Friends found it difficult to find rebuttals to the polished arguments the developers presented to the regulatory agencies. “They know all the tricks and how to play the game, something we had to learn as we went along,” stated Mrs. Levesque.
Some of the residents contend that the agencies did not take the neutral position they should have, but supported the project from its inception. And it’s easy to see why.
In return for providing police and fire services the city of La Mesa will receive an estimated $97,000 a year in added revenues. The average annual income of the new Helix Lake residents is projected at $60,000, 25 per cent of which will be spent in the community. This will bring an additional $435,000 shot-in-the-arm to local businesses.
Surrounding homeowners fear the building won’t stop with the completion of the Helix Lake project, but will open what Mrs. Levesque has termed “a Pandora's box of development.” Easy access to the sewer line that will be installed by the Golden Company to service the new homes could tempt landowners along its route to subdivide and build. And a 16.45 acre plot of empty land directly across from the lake is presently for sale.
Complaints about the quality and thoroughness of the Environmental Impact Report have been voiced by both the Friends and an ex-employee of RECON. the firm hired by Golden to prepare the report. It does seem somewhat ironic that Orville P. Ball and Associates, the sub-contractor hired to provide an independent and unbiased assessment of the reservoir’s condition for the EIR, i„ presently being retained by the Golden Construction Co. Mr. Ball confirmed that he is working for Golden, stating it was a “logical” situation and that he sees no conflict of interest in the arrangement.
On June 18, five days after Golden began emptying the reservoir, Stephen M. Eckis, representing the Friends, argued before Superior Court Judge Jack Levitt for a temporary restraining order which would have stopped the draining. Levitt granted the order pending a June 27 hearing, but the Friends were unwilling to provide the necessary $10,000 bond and the order was later revoked.
Tomorrow Eckis will re-argue his case before Levitt, seeking a preliminary injunction without bond. In what he terms a “hybrid between class action and a private party suit,” Eckis hopes to convince the judge that the Friends are entitled to a decision by adverse use.
This strategy is based on rulings in which judges have turned over privately-owned beaches to the public domain. The Friends contend that because Golden Construction has made no “concerted effort” to keep people out of Helix Lake for the past "five years, their property is forfeited and passes to public ownership.
In the meantime, the M.H. Golden Co. is attributing huge losses to the delay of construction and the draining of Helix Lake continues, endangering one of the most delicately balanced ecosystems in San Diego County.