Robert Dingeman: "The people who live in apartments are different. They don’t have children.”
Nowadays, while the rattlers remain, steers have been replaced by SUVs, Bambi and his kin are in a witness protection program, and the ranchers have been plowed over by glad-handers who lasso real estate. If you venture onto the spread, you may see license-plate frames with the slogan, “Scripps Ranch — Country Living.” But if this is “country,” I’d sure hate to see the suburbs.
"In the great Cedar Fire, none — repeat, none — of the eucalyptus trees torched."
Let’s face it: if Gertie Stein had stumbled upon Scripps Ranch in an unplanned detour on the way to surveying the Stingaree in its dotage, she might have quipped, “There’s no ranch in the ranch.” It’s pretty damned hard to find, so I did my best to sniff it out, using old-timers’ reminiscences as cerebral divining rods. While I was at it, I also revisited those license-plate frames to see if they meant a damned solitary thing in 2017.
"Where Lake Miramar is now, when I was a little girl, I rode my horse there.”
First stop was at the Scripps Ranch Swim and Racquet Club, whose pools, Jacuzzis, tennis courts and lawns sit atop the Ould Sod, as it were, ancestral lair of genteel equinophiles who once rode the not-so-rugged range and who gathered at what came to be known as the “Meanley House.” The club houses a nice black-and-white photo of the Meanleys’ modest abode but furnishes few clues, save perhaps from the occasional wind-blown whisper from an old eucalyptus on the far back lawn.
Ben Domurat: "My sign will read 'Attention Burglars: Please Do Not Break Windows—Back Doors Are Open.'’”
Kingpin of the Ranch
Scripps Ranch is the kind of place where mass-media labels such as “soccer mom” come to hideous fruition, a place where heresy is defined as a snippet of crabgrass in the front yard. During the 1960s, C. Arnholt Smith, a local bigwig with connections to Richard Nixon, was known in some circles as “Mr. San Diego.” Such was his perceived power and influence in what was then a rock-ribbed Republican Navy town. Some years later, Colonel Robert E. Dingeman, an Army man born on base at Corregidor in the Philippines, moved here and was eventually referred to in some quarters as “Mr. Scripps Ranch.”
The acme of the Ranch’s social season, the Fourth of July Parade.
Dingeman, who tips the Carbon-14 scale at 95, fancies himself the Kingpin of the Ranch as we now know it, and while civic boosterism is hardly unique to the tracts of the Ranch, one would be hard-pressed to find another county neighborhood that practices it more stridently or a man who lives it more constantly.
When the first residents arrived in 1969, ithe Swim & Racquet Club had already been built.
I asked Dingeman what had attracted him to Scripps Ranch. “We were looking for a family-oriented community; we didn’t want something that was all built up. Although the first residents arrived in 1969, it was still very rural. The Swim & Racquet Club had already been built, but where the Vons shopping center is today there were two large trailers where we bought our groceries. Across the street was a church also in portables, as was the elementary school.
I’m hangin’ at Ballast Point. Hey, it’s pretty loud and there appear to be a goodly number of sub-30 folks here.
"One of the first things that impressed me right away was that people came up to meet me, community activists who had the idea of preserving something rural and nice — not tremendously packed-in.” Dingeman, a short man who uses a walker to scurry about his home, prides himself for being an early member of the Scripps Ranch Civic Association, whose small-town boosterism forms his ethos — an ethos he insists should pervade the entirety of the Ranch, if not all of San Diego. “We formed a group and started putting out a one-page, mimeographed newsletter, which we now distribute by the thousands.”
Leafing through the newsletter, which locals find on their driveways every month without fail, one senses an obsession with schools, real estate and traffic issues, prosaic topics that one would presumably encounter in Anytown, Anystate For the good Colonel, it’s white bread and white picket fences — as long as they don’t violate homeowners’ association rules. “Community activism?” Well, if you’re thinking wizened hippies in O.B. or rainbow-flag warriors in Hillcrest you’ve got the wrong neighborhood.
Scripps Ranch was named for the Scripps clan, whose history was a rather recondite topic for me at the time I first alighted upon the Ranch in May 1982, when I met and fell in love with a woman who lived there. An elementary-school teacher, she’d just bought a condo off Pomerado Road. I’d never heard of the place before. We had a torrid but brief affair, and I recall that, on my drives north from Mission Valley to see her, I’d mentally refer to her as “the girl on Pomerado Road.” Pomerado? The name seemed exotic to me. Decades later, in a somewhat wistful twist of irony, I ended up moving to a newly built, northerly part of the Ranch with my wife, Laura, whom I’d met in 1989 when I was at Cal Western Law School. By then, 1996, the Ranch had lost its mystery, save for the remaining portion of Pomerado Road via which one could explore parts of the defunct Sycamore Canyon missile testing site.
The scrubby mesas and small canyons that would later become what Wikipedia terms an “affluent community in the northeastern part of San Diego” were, in the decades before the first World War, 1200 acres owned by newspaper tycoon Edward Willis Scripps, who was born in the hamlet of Rushville, Illinois, in 1854. San Diego had its share of “old money” magnates back then, but many, like their counterparts around the state, were absentee owners unfamiliar with the vast tracts under their titles. E.W., however, having developed a fondness for the scrubby, waterless acreage, lived on the property, at least part-time.
The official synopsis, or “Just the facts, Jack”
According to Wikipedia, Scripps Ranch is a “coastal/inland bedroom community within the City of San Diego, east of I-15, north of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and south of Poway which features mature eucalyptus trees. Miramar Reservoir is located within Scripps Ranch and offers recreational boating and fishing.”
The San Diego History Center recounts that in 1968, Leadership Homes purchased the 1180-acre Miramar Ranch from Margaret Scripps Hawkins. To no one’s great shock, the “master plan” was approved by the San Diego City Council in 1970 and in 1975 the ranch was sold to the Corky McMillin Company. Soon afterward sprouted, like mushrooms after a rain, a cluster of committees, sub-committees, and sub-sub-committees, including the Scripps Miramar Ranch Community Planning Group, which commissioned a comprehensive “community plan” adopted by the city council in 1978.
The aesthetics of the planned community
McMillin tract houses are the norm here, replete with shoddy electrical and plumbing, as well as (unless subsequently ameliorated by their owners) a bare front yard visage of Bermuda grass and day lilies — nothing native, of course. Many of the newer dwellings suffer an even more egregious aesthetic fate: they’re fronted with “bottle brush trees,” apparently the cheapest trunks of deciduous homeliness that wholesale nurseries could unload.
But what about the “Master Plan?” The History Center states that the plan was to include “extensive preservation of canyons, numerous parks, schools, and the eucalyptus forest.” Schools? Check. So many that one can hardly traverse the neighborhood without being waylaid by elementary-school kiddie “safety patrols” and their foaming-at-the-mouth parents who go apeshit if their sacred crosswalks are breached when the anointed tykes are within a suburban mile. Parks? Sure, parks aplenty, as sterile as the civic association can make them. As for canyons and the apocryphal eucalyptus forest, I refer you to the big yellow machines that, by the 1990s, had — to a chorus of silence — graded, plowed, and flattened the place to make it safe for tract homes.
Demographics for your dining and dancing pleasure
According to the website City-Data, 34,039 people resided in 92131 in 2015, up from 32,476 in 2008 and around 28,000 back in 2000. Ethnically speaking, the neighborhood is around 70 percent white, 20 percent eastern Asian (mostly Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese) with a smattering of Indians and Iranians and a small contingent of Mexican-Americans and blacks.
Wikipedia claims that the neighborhood is “diverse in age,” with 27 percent under 18 and 8 percent over 65. But you’ll find very few full-time residents aged 18 to 30 except college students who commute to school and young adults who still live with their parents. The median age of 39.5 reflects the plethora of kids 18 and younger and their parents, typically over 35. Oldsters “aging in place” are there, but there’s a sharp drop-off after 60 or so. The median household income in 2015 was $114,392, with San Diego’s as a whole coming in at $67,871; 9 percent of the 11,661 households made $200,000 or more, while 46 percent made $100,000 or more and 7 percent made $29,999 or less.
Scripps Ranch is known as a safe, dull, quiet, and expensive enclave. A website called Area Vibes, which is geared toward real estate, assigns Scripps Ranch an overall “livability” score of 71 on a scale of 0–100, ranking it 45th among San Diego neighborhoods. While AreaVibe gives it an “A+” for crime, employment, housing, and weather (as well as a “B” for education), affordability and amenities get “Fs.” “We help you find the best places to live in America. We do this by assigning a Livability Score out of 100 to any address, zip code, neighborhood or city that you can think of. The higher the score, the better the city (in our opinion). The lower the score, well, don’t say you weren’t warned!”
Give me eucalyptus or give me death
If warnings are needed in the Ranch, it’s the revered eucalyptus that gives rise to them. Bob Dingeman recalls, “Unfortunately, very early on, we had two fatal accidents where people were driving too fast and hit the same tree. I made an issue of it and had the damned tree removed.”
The occasional arboreal scofflaw aside, Dingeman is a staunch defender of the Aussie invader, notably when it comes to the ubiquitous euc’s role in the wildfires that, to some, have become as emblematic of Scripps Ranch as the spindly trees themselves.
“I remember the story of Chauncey Jerabek and E.W. Scripps planting 25,000 of them. We haven’t planted any since; they’re just ‘self-planting.’ They’re a good thing because they give us a sense of greenness. Someone has said that they’re very vulnerable to fire; that’s not true. In the great Cedar Fire, none — repeat, none — of the eucalyptus trees torched. But the heat of the fire did dry up the leaves and if you go up Pomerado Road, you’ll see dead trees; I’ve counted over 50. But they didn’t burn.”
Boredom versus safety
“Is it tranquil suburban bliss or just bedroom-community boredom?”
I asked Ben Domurat, who moved here in 1980, for his take. Domurat, a 71-year-old Navy vet born in New York, replied, “My daughter who rents a place in North Park says, ‘I loved growing up in Scripps Ranch, but everybody was just like me. I wouldn’t want to live there now, because it’s not a diverse group of people. If I could just find a move-in ready house in North Park….’ And when I say to her, ‘You can move to Scripps Ranch for that price, she says, ‘But I don’t want to live in Scripps; there’s nothing happening there.’”
No one disputes that Scripps Ranch, while low in thrills, is low on crime. Hell, SDPD head honcha Zimmerman lives here, so you know the odds of random mayhem are low, and even a scantily clad young woman (let’s make her drunk for emphasis) can wander the 3:00 a.m. streets without doubling down on Xanax. Anomalies occur, however — just ask Steve Foley, shot and crippled (NFL career obliterated) by psycho off-duty crusading cop Aaron Mansker in 2006 (technically in Poway, but…); or sportscaster Kyle Kraska, blasted in his driveway in 2015 by a pissed-off house painter. And who among us locals could forget the tragedy involving Heather D’Aoust, who in 2008 bludgeoned her adoptive mom to death? But outliers will be outliers, and as Domurat quips, “I was a chatting with a new neighbor who’d just moved in and was worried about security; he installed an alarm system and put a sign on his lawn. He said he had a spare one and asked if I wanted it. I said, ‘No. My sign will read “Attention Burglars: Please Do Not Break Windows—Back Doors Are Open.”’”
Steep price of admission
Whether one characterizes the homeowners’-association-compliant houses and winding streets of the Ranch as a mildly bucolic paradise, an exemplar of ennui-infused suburban sprawl, or something in between, the price of admission is steep. Although few homes approach the price tags hanging from the tonier digs of Del Mar, La Jolla, or Rancho Santa Fe, Scripps Ranch is still not for the light-of-wallet: according to real estate site Zillow, the median price of a detached, single-family home stood at $763,000 as of August 2017; the median price in the City of San Diego, meanwhile, was at $578,000. The key words here are “detached” and “single family,” because while the old guard may toss out PC-approved jargon like “diversity” now and then, it’s pretty clear that many “Ranchers” are quite pleased to be detached from déclassé ’hoods like Mira Mesa, which lies across Interstate 15 to the west.
I asked Domurat, “Is there a pecking order among various Scripps Ranch areas?”
“I think so. When people ask me what part of Scripps Ranch I live in, I say, ‘the ghetto part.’ Of course, my neighbor across the street is a bank president, so it’s not too rundown. My perception is that the newer, more expensive parts, especially south of Pomerado Road, are yuppier.” But as for genuine po’ folks? “I saw something in the Civic Association newsletter,” notes Domurat, “about an organization offering food subsidies for low-income older people. Does anyone in Scripps Ranch actually qualify?”
The consensus among Scripps Ranch old-timers is that the place is far less affordable now than it was during what passes for paleolithic times in greater San Diego. “Young people moving here now,” notes Domurat, “have to be far more affluent than we did when we moved in decades ago; housing prices are extremely high. We’re getting less of a mix — I’m not saying that’s either good or bad. Also, people are tending to stay here during retirement. I’m on the board at the club, and the discussion is, ‘What can we do to attract the senior citizens rather than just being family- and kid-oriented?’”
Not la vida local
Drive around the Ranch on any weekday morning, you’ll hear Spanish. It’s not from the locals but from the men who groom the lawns and trim the ficus trees, helping us comply with not only HOA Babbittry, but the demands of anal-compulsive neighbors who moan about “property values” as if they ever intended to move. With their fleet of battered trucks and shop-worn mowers, they drive up from South Bay or down from Escondido, complete their tasks — for cash — and then disappear by the time the suburbanites pull in the driveway.
On my street, Wences (I’ve never known his last name) has a mini-monopoly on yard work, and his dented red pickup is a regular sight. Claiming that he’s lived in National City for 19 years, he looks to be about 45, though years in the sun and rose thorns have taken their toll. His English vocabulary is substantially smaller than my Spanish, which is saying something. But there’s no mistaking the whine of his leaf-blower as it pierces the early-morning calm of my bedroom.
As it turns out, there’s a sizable chunk of the Ranch that has no bedrooms at all, but a surprising number of de facto boardrooms and more than a few conference tables, company cafeterias, and corporate ID badges, stinkin’ and otherwise. Plunked down amid century-old eucalypti is a passel of those rhetorical contradictions: business parks, where outfits such as LG Electronics and WD-40, having passed muster with King Dingeman and the Court, ply their clean corporate wares — not to the rabble, mind you, but in the remote, bloodless way that ensures a sense of sterility, the only life on the street consisting of worker-drones staring at cell phones.
Apartments need not apply
Scripps Ranch, with a population density of 759 persons per square mile, could be cited by urban planners as an exemplar of urban sprawl, albeit a relatively tasteful one, depending on what subdivision you’re talking about. For the sake of comparison, according to the website City Data, San Diego County has a population density of 680 persons per square mile, while the City of San Diego sits at 3772 per square mile. A lack of apartment buildings in the Ranch is to thank for a density so far below the city average.
Bob Dingeman is open about his disdain for apartment construction in Scripps Ranch and has led the largely successful goal-line defense to repel the multi-unit invaders. But if Dingeman and others have stood at the metaphorical Gates of Vienna against the hordes, what is it about apartments that galls them? “Well, the people who live in apartment are different,” explains Dingeman. “How so?” I press. He replies, “They don’t have children.”
And when it comes to the Ranch’s policy-shapers, kids are never far from the discussion, as exemplified by the conflict between the Scripps Ranch Civic Association and the San Diego Unified School District over the fate of a property on Spring Canyon. Over the past several years, yellow signs reading “No Closing Schools For Apartments” had been planted in front of the Innovations charter school, formerly Ellen Browning Scripps Elementary. It’s par for the course for the association, which bitterly opposes almost all development in Scripps Ranch, save for single-family homes and business parks. Ben Domurat sounds a conciliatory note. “They’ll probably be high-end places, but not necessarily typical families with kids. But who has the right to exclude them from our community?”
Forged by fire?
While not the only San Diego neighborhood affected by wildfires, Scripps Ranch has the distinction of being of the nation’s most-chronicled “fire-ravaged” neighborhoods, courtesy of the Cedar Fire of October 2003, which destroyed over 300 homes in the southern reaches. When I asked Dingeman, “Did you evacuate?” he said, “Everybody did.” (For the record, I didn’t.) “One result of the fires,” offered Dingeman, “was when I moved here, there was a tradition that every house would have a wooden shake-shingle roof in a certain color so that everything would look rustic; we were anxious about color, size and…shake shingles. Nowadays, they’ve been replaced with fire-retardant roofs.”
Domurat recalls the scene in 2003: “I had the TV on in the morning and there was a newscaster, Steve Fiorino from Channel 10, standing across from Posies Flowers near the old Vons. I could see the flames leaping up behind him south of Pomerado and he was talking about evacuations. I finally did evacuate because I got a call from friends who said, ‘Get the hell out of there and stay with us.’ But my perception was they’d never let the fire burn through another 500 houses to get to me, so I felt perfectly safe. The worst part is that they wouldn’t let us back in for an extra day. In the 2007 fire, the police were driving up and down the street telling us we had to get out, but the reason I left was that my daughter called me from North Park and said, ‘I’m living with a bunch of my girlfriends; come on down here.’”
My kind of town
The more cynical among us might surmise that the hoped-for, dreamt-about motto for the Ranch might have been kinder, küche, kirche — an arcane German motto meaning children, kitchen, church — although the comestible component of the troika seems to get short shrift, or at least a different spin, when one takes into account the dual-income households where the genteel distaffers tread lightly in the kitchen. Indeed, when I asked the self-aggrandizing but affable Dingeman about the neighborhood’s deficiencies (if any), he said, “We need more churches. We have some of those ‘storefront’ types, but that’s not enough.”
“Why does Scripps Ranch need more churches?” I queried.
“It makes a community more well-rounded.” But for Dingeman, a well-rounded community has no need for taverns, even those that might — ahem — offer obscure single-malt Scotches at $20 a whiff. By way of explanation, he offers, “Neither I nor my wife Gaye drink, smoke, or take drugs.”
So, if hangin’ with the Colonel doesn’t mean a round at the corner bar or a backyard toke, what’s on the agenda for shits ’n’ giggles? How does the ideal Rancher, the archetypal salary-man (or woman) frolic when not laboring behind the reflective windows of his (or her) high-tech wage-slave quarters? Glad you asked. Why, of course — it’s the acme of the Ranch’s social season, the Fourth of July Parade!
Prosaic processions aside, and even as I thumb through a thread-worn volume of H.L. Mencken essays, I can’t help but to be impressed by — and forgive me for saying this — the pre-sin goodness of the two boys, perhaps ten, who, after I’d dropped my wallet on the front lawn and was none the wiser for it, knocked on my door and handed it to me. They didn’t ask for a reward, nor did they appear disappointed when none was proffered. Actually, it appeared, even filtered as it was by my jaundiced receiver, that they’d enjoyed the repatriation for what it was: the thing that good suburbanites (and, presumably, forthright folks of any sort) should do unless the circumstances prove exigent. But neither circumstances nor anything else, save for an errant eucalyptus down for the count, will invoke exigency in the Ranch. So take comfort in the glow of country living, attend the church of your choice, and for God’s sake, don’t sideswipe that white SUV, the one with Pony Tail Zumba-Mom and her three precious kids.
But is my jaundiced view of the Ranch the prevailing one? Domurat, while not a pom-pom waver, explains why folks have been willing to pony up to live here:
“We’d gone to a party that my commanding officer was hosting on Canyon Lake Drive near Hoyt Park. My wife and I’d been living in Mira Mesa and had said to ourselves, This isn’t the community for us. But at the time, I was a lieutenant and my wife didn’t have a job, so we didn’t want to over-extend ourselves. We saw the trees behind the homes on Canyon Lake Drive and remarked, ‘Look — no neighbors looking over your back fence. If the house ever becomes available, we just might buy it.’ It did and we did.”
Domurat, like many in the neighborhood, has seen the impact of growth on traffic along Pomerado Road, an erstwhile sleepy thoroughfare. “I wish we had less traffic, and it would be nicer if it were a little smaller, not so built-out. Now, instead of being in the outlying parts of San Diego, while we’re not in the very heart of the city, we’re very connected. Because we’ve grown in size, we’ve lost a little sense of community. Originally, Scripps Ranch was out in the country. The nearest places to buy groceries were in Mira Mesa and Clairemont. Elementary-school kids were in trailers while high-school students had to go — I’m not sure where. It was a very homogeneous group, almost all young families.”
Some things haven’t changed in the Ranch, including the dearth of nightlife.
I asked Domurat, “Is this a good place to be if you’re young and single?”
“I’d think not,” he quipped. “If you want the singles scene, you’re not going to get it here; it’s a family-oriented community, and you’re not a family.”
Ruritania is closer than you think
10051 Old Grove Road, Suite B, San Diego
It’s Friday night and I’m hangin’ at Ballast Point, on Old Grove Road about a mile off Interstate 15 at the Pomerado Road exit. An 11 percent alcohol-by-volume IPA works its way through my bloodstream into my liver. Maybe there’s a party scene here after all. Hey, it’s pretty loud and there appear to be a goodly number of sub-30 folks here, some of them single or at least pretending to be. But what they don’t know is that no more than a few hundred yards away from this antiseptic business park, just on the other side of an unassuming wall, is a facility that one might actually term…a ranch. If you know where to look — and very few people, even longtime denizens, do — you’ll find a 70-acre time capsule of sorts, a living museum where the caretaker, docent, and palace guard is herself an exhibit and exemplar of a bypassed past that lives on in dusty, incongruous glory.
“Where the business parks are, that’s where we used to run cattle — Herefords — beef cattle. And That’s Michelle Macfarlane recounting the days when men were men and realtors were just salesmen. At the very end of a dead end that real estaters would prefer to call a cul-de-sac, the sign reads, “Scripps Ranch Saddlebreds,” where Mcfarlane, along with husband Steve, has for decades, within earshot of the I-15, run what turns out to be a celebrated horse-breeding operation.
Mcfarlane, who claims a vintage of 1952 but sounds like a whisper from the horse-and-buggy era of landed gentry and man-servants, boasts that, at one time, she exported exceptional equines to such events as the Rose Parade up in Pasadena and the Queen’s Jubilee, apparently a rather high-toned gala held at Windsor Castle in London. And research reveals that Macfarlane, while not a jockey, was herself a highly accomplished equestrienne, garnering a passel of riding titles in Kentucky. But the Bluegrass days are gone. “We’re semi-retired now. We have about 15 Saddlebreds, and sometimes ship a little semen; but that’s about it.”
To hear Macfarlane talk, you’d think that, beyond the gates of the old Rancho, it was uncharted wilderness, especially to the north of Lake Miramar, where squatters and recluses were rumored to reside. “When my mom and I rode our horses up there, we’d pass by an igloo-shaped house where a ‘Ms. Zader’ lived. People said that she’d shoot rattlesnakes, cook ’em, and eat ’em. My mom would always say, ‘Hurry up, gallop — let’s get out of here.’
“Things were different back then, when this was an estate with about 50 people on it, just our close-knit family and workers. My great-grandfather built the house where I was born, and I still live here.” Not realizing the connection, I asked Macfarlane, “And what was his name?”
Old man Scripps, said to be a bit of a hermit himself in his later years, and renowned for not only a newspaper empire, but for going through 50 cigars a day, wouldn’t recognize his neighborhood today. Macfarlane, who attended Francis Parker, notes, “Where the Vons is now — that was a stable. Every family member had his or her own stable, and all the roads were dirt except Pomerado, where you’d turn right at a stop sign to get to Highway 395.”
Notwithstanding a lineage that’s bona fide San Diego royalty, Mcfarlane states, “I didn’t realize that we were wealthy. It was just a nice, cheerful place to live and ride your horses. We had a lot of deer, bobcats, quail, buzzards, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. You can still hear the coyotes, of course, and the snakes are still around.”
If you take a gander as you drive along the northbound I-15, the property looks to be just a plot of unkempt brush, and a cruise down Pomerado Road reveals little more. No doubt, you’ll notice the early condos, whose cheesy ’70s style pastels and slanted roofs (nary a “mid-century modern” quasi-classic in sight) comprise what many San Diegans consider “old” Scripps Ranch. But you’ll need to launch a drone or maybe hitch a ride on a red-tailed hawk to really see what’s there, hidden in almost plain sight. However, if you configure Mapquest or Google Maps just right, you can get a pretty nice aerial overview of Macfarlane’s spread, which occupies a square between the freeway, Pomerado Road, and the prosaic “attached homes.”
Every once in awhile, maybe late on a cool November night, one can detect a soupçon of the coastal chaparral that once blanketed the modest canyons and smallish mesas. It’s a subtle fragrance, but unmistakeable to San Diegans prone to Proustian moods. Maybe that’s where the Ranch is.