Overflow crowd outside meeting
On June 22, it took a panel of Escondido planning commissioners less than two minutes to decide against the Southwest Key project that would have turned a vacant nursing home into a federally funded residential center for unaccompanied children and youth from Central America.
The decision, which ratified the planning commission's decision in June to deny a permit to the nonprofit, came at the end of a passionate meeting where at least 50 people spoke for the one minute allowed by the board.
Commissioners James Spann, Bob McQuead, Merle Watson, Ed Hale, Guy Winton III, and chairman Jeffery Weber voted unanimously to sustain their previous decision. Commissioner Gregory Johns, who had focused his questions on the legal status of the proposed residents at the June meeting, did not attend Tuesday's meeting.
The meeting room was full of people who had come early enough to get tickets for seats. An overflow crowd, composed mainly of Latinos, could be heard cheering the majority of comments that favored the facility by people inside the meeting room.
Many of the outside group had participated in an hour-and-a-half-long march through the streets of Escondido — a city that the U.S. Census says is 49 percent Latino and 40 percent white — in support of the Southwest Key project.
Some spoke about the 150 jobs and $8.5 million in economic stimulus that the federally funded center would bring. Some spoke about their experiences as migrants. And some, including Escondido resident Francisco Ramirez, talked about how they believe Escondido discriminates against Latinos and immigrants.
"Every day I see my brother, my family, my neighbors living in fear because of the anti-immigrant sentiments of this city," Ramirez said. "We can do better."
Commission chair Jeffery Weber asked speakers to limit their comments. "This decision was based on land-use matters, so I ask you to conform your remarks to land-use matters," he told the speakers midway into the first hour of comments.
So, Rev. Sharon Wylie gave them what Weber asked for. "The staff report says the project would bring jobs. There's plenty of parking. The police and fire departments have no concerns. There are no environmental issues. The reviews of Southwest Key are glowing," she said. "So I ask you to reconsider based on the staff report."
About a dozen people who live in the neighborhood where the holding facility would be located all thanked the commission for its previous decision and asked the group to stand by it.
Larry Demry, who spoke against the project at the first hearing, made his remarks succinct: "Most of what you're hearing tonight should be directed to the federal government, not you," Demry told the board.
Joan Gardner also supported the board the second time: "The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that this facility does not belong in our neighborhood," she said.
The Palomar Continuing Care center closed in August 2013, and 130 people lost their jobs when it did. The 2.3-acre facility at 1817 Avenida de Diablo — with 35,000 square feet of buildings — only needs a six-foot fence and a trash enclosure to make the exterior ready to turn it into a residential facility for the minors, according to the June meeting notes.
Many of the comments at the first meeting reflected neighborhood concerns with traffic, safety, health, and parking issues — which apparently did not exist while the building was a 96-bed nursing-care facility during its more than 20-year history. But many other comments at the first meeting — including those of several commissioners — instead focused on the immigration status of the minors.
Tuesday night's meeting delivered more of the same, but with stronger rebuttal from the audience, including an emerging generation of Latino voters.
Throughout the meeting, J. David Loy, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union San Diego and Imperial Counties chapter, sat silent, taking notes. The ACLU has sued the city before: once over an ordinance that required landlords to verify the citizenship status of renters; also, over checkpoints that seem to target Latinos and permitting processes that they say made it hard for Latinos to use public land.
After the planning commission vote, Loy said, "We will be investigating this decision in the context of fair housing law, of state land use, and federal law," Loy said. "It's hard to see how a facility housing 96 people would be any different from the facility housing 96 people that was there a year ago."