San Diego On a weekday, the west end of Barona Mesa Road in San Diego Country Estates is as bucolic a spot to live as any in San Diego County. An eclectic array of $600,000 homes on half-acre lots lines the street. The cul-de-sac sits four miles southeast of Ramona, as the red-tailed hawk soars, more than one mile and over a ridge from the nearest thoroughfare, San Vicente Road. Only the singing of thousands of birds flitting among the manicured landscapes and surrounding native chaparral breaks the neighborhood's silence. But on most Saturdays and Sundays, the droning of motorcycles speeding around the Barona Oaks Raceway drowns out all the birds and makes outdoor conversation difficult. On weekend nights, the groan of generators from the recreational vehicles parked at the racetrack overpowers the chirp of the crickets.
On weekdays, the prevailing west-to-east breeze brings the scent of sage and wild lilacs growing on the hillsides and the moist smell of cottonwoods and willows growing alongside the Klondike Creek just to the west. On weekends, the same breeze brings a cloud of dust the color of a brown paper bag kicked up by the motorcycles skidding their way around Barona Oaks' two dirt tracks, which lie just inside the Barona Indian Reservation a football field's distance to the west.
The weekend noise and dust are so bad, says resident Paul Freitas, "I find things to do on Saturday and Sunday so that I'm not at home."
Freitas's home sits on the north side of Barona Mesa three houses from the road's western terminus. He and his wife and two children have lived in the single-story Mediterranean house since 1996. A dark-haired man in his mid-40s dressed in green shorts, a gray surf-themed T-shirt, and huarache sandals, Freitas leads a visitor through his comfortably appointed house and out onto his back patio. "See this?" He wipes a finger across the glass top of a patio table and holds the smudged fingertip up for inspection. "This is the lovely dust that blows up from the track every weekend."
Indeed, all of his patio furniture, the patio itself, the shrubs in his landscaping, and the window screens of his house are covered in a visible layer of dirty dun-colored dust. "And this is only from one weekend's racing," Freitas explains. "I washed all this down after the weekend before."
Freitas walks across the dusty patio and out into his back yard, which slopes northward up a hillside. He ambles through a gate in the fence at the top of his property and climbs onto a flat-topped boulder the size of a dining room table. This vantage point, 60 feet above the level of the street in front of the house, offers a view to the west of the Barona Oaks motocross facility. There are two tracks, each a bare dirt oval about the size of a high school running track, but wider. One rests on the north slope of the valley, the other on the south slope. The Klondike Creek bed runs east to west along the bottom of the valley between the two tracks. On this sunny day in late spring, the air is crystal clear, and the view across the track toward the hills and mountains of the Barona Indian Reservation takes the breath away. "It is a nice view," Freitas says, "but when the bikes are running, the dust they kick up obscures that view so you hardly see the mountains on the other side. And do you feel that breeze? Except during a Santa Ana, it always blows from over there to over here. So when they're racing over there, the breeze pushes all the dust over here."
Freitas serves as chairman of a neighborhood coalition called the Barona Environmental Association that for more than eight years has been trying, without success, to get the tribe to move the track, or at least reduce the number of races at Barona Oaks. Not only has the track not been moved, but the number of races and race weekends has increased since Freitas penned a letter to then-tribal chairman Clifford LaChappa on March 26, 2000. "The track is located a mere one hundred yards from some of our homes and the noise and the dust impact us to a degree that you do not appreciate," Freitas wrote. "We understand that the track has been in place for a number of years; however, the frequency of the events and the character of the racing vehicles have changed dramatically in the last few years. When the majority of our membership purchased our homes, the track was in operation only a few weekends a year, primarily during the summer. In recent years this has changed. Today the track is used all year round on a weekly basis, sometimes as late as 11:00 p.m. Further, the vehicles are much more powerful and consequently much louder."
The California Mini Motorcycle Club runs Barona Oaks raceway. Their 2005 rules and regulations, which are posted on the Internet, confirm that the track is no longer only for kids on minibikes, as it was when it opened in 1973. Though minibikes with engines as small as 50cc ridden by kids up to eight years old are still raced there, the club also runs races for larger classes, including an "open class" that allows motorcycles of any engine size ridden by riders of any age. And the difference is striking. One recent Sunday, the noise at the end of the cul-de-sac, while the minibikes were running, was loud -- like a swarm of enormous bees -- but normal conversation was possible. Then an open-class race began, and the lower-throated roar of the bigger engines made conversation without significantly raised voices impossible.
In his letter to LaChappa back in March 2000, Freitas wrote, "In addition to the noise we are concerned that the track is located in a seasonal streambed. The vehicles themselves and the generating facility are a direct source of leakage of petrochemicals into the surrounding aquifer.... The purpose of this letter is to open a dialogue with the tribal authorities with the goal of moving the track to another part of the reservation."
Freitas went on to cite state and federal environmental and noise statutes he believed applied to the case and to suggest arbitration if no agreement could be reached. After receiving no answer to the letter, Freitas sent it again, on April 15, 2000. Almost a month later, he received a letter dated May 11, 2000, not from LaChappa but from the tribe's Escondido lawyer, Art Bunce, which stated, "The Tribal Council's initial response is to reject any suggestion that any outside party should dictate to the Barona Band how it will use the lands of its federal Indian reservation."
Bunce went on to say that Freitas's letter "seeks to give non-Indians an effective veto over the decisions which the Tribe makes as to how it wishes to make use of its Reservation land. While the tribe wishes to be a good neighbor, the approach of your organization assumes the result of any dialog, and treats the Barona Band and its federal Indian reservation as just another ordinary neighbor, rather than a sovereign government. For this reason, the Barona Tribal Council is not interested in any discussion where the result is already dictated before the discussion even begins."
Communication between the tribe and the Barona Mesa Environmental Association grew a little more cordial over the next few years. Freitas and others from his association met with LaChappa once -- "Though nothing came of it," Freitas says -- and the tribe even agreed to have a noise study done. The test was performed on July 10 and 11, 2004, by Investigative Science and Engineering, which concluded, "Based upon the measurement, hourly noise levels were found to be at or below 60 [decibels]. This commonly would not be deemed as excessive noise."
Freitas says the test did not reflect normal conditions at the track. "The tribe insisted on knowing the date of the test, and fewer bikes came that day," he contends. Since then, there have been "more races, bigger bikes, more dust, and more noise. And they've started coming on some weekdays now."
Freitas and the members of the Barona Environmental Association who haven't moved out of the neighborhood in frustration have contacted County Supervisor Dianne Jacob's office as well as state and federal government entities. The message they've gotten from all of them has been a version of what one official from Dianne Jacob's office said recently: "We're well aware of the problem with the track, but we can't operate on tribal land."
The county supervisor's staff is planning an August meeting to bring together the tribe and its neighbors.
Neither the Barona tribe nor the California Mini Motorcycle Club responded to phone calls seeking comment.