In August 2018, many of us were aghast at a news story, summed up in the Union-Tribune’s webby headline, “Three dead in wrong-way I-805 crash in Sorrento Valley that shut down freeway for 6 hours.” An 18-year-old man driving a McLaren sports car 100 miles per hour southward in the northbound lanes smashed into an SUV carrying a mother and daughter. On impact, the cars ignited in a firestorm and all three were killed.
Deadly accidents are not rare occurrences at the nexus “in Sorrento Valley.” Charred swaths and shattered glass on the highway speak of a Pickett’s Charge to get through the Merge, famed for its 22 northbound and southbound lanes that move thousands to destinations ever elsewhere.
This getting by only popularizes a misconception about the place, like rubes end up in Bakersfield or billionaire technocrats outnumber the poor in San Francisco. No, no, no. Look closer. Wrecks don’t occur in Sorrento Valley. They happen on Interstate 805, the coronary artery that skirts the community. I-805 is not in but rather above or over the Valley, much like our night and morning clouds are above and over the coastal air-vent of the county, daily sun-erased.
Most of us know little about the Valley below. For one thing, it’s among the safest of neighborhoods. A glance at crime statistics shows negligible amounts in Sorrento Valley proper (most months: no murder, no rape, 20 nonresidential burglaries). The place is either an off-hours fortress with a Brink’s security apparatus, or what is there — aside from a few thousand folk who live in the Water Ridge and Pacific Ridge developments — is mostly business property under lock and guard.
Indeed, there are two Sorrento Valleys. One is a beehive of daytime ritual; countless cubicled techies, screen-gazing at Qualcomm or startups such as Omniome, Injinji, and Onsolve (soon-to-launch micro-gadgetry or spicy Asian street food). The other is composed of halcyon homes where residents unwind with ample night-and-weekend quiet. They toast their five-bedroom, backyard-balcony, canyon-view homes and listen to the coyotes howl.
Birth of an old identity
One morning in March, 2013, Julia Schriber drove out of her Sorrento Valley subdivision and was shocked to see her locale had just been signed — blue-and-white plaques bolted to light poles, reading “Welcome to Mira Mesa.” There were several of these roadway placards, overnighted as it were. In one case, there was (and remains) a “monument,” a fake-rock marker announcing Mira Mesa, anchored where Mira Mesa Boulevard begins just off the I-805, which, residents rightly claim, is Sorrento Valley proper. Her pride assaulted, Schriber started phoning friends.
Soon, Susan Carolin, Lil Nover, and a woman named Suzette joined Schriber, all 20-year-plus residents, for a kitchen-table revolutionary tea. They were more than upset, as Schriber, a sonographer at UCSD, tells it. “We felt we were literally being erased.” The word “erased” suggests intent. (Some ruthless sorts, during this velvet takeover, also changed Valley names on Wikipedia and on Google Maps, which eventually had to be changed back.) Schriber says that what little clout neighbors thought they had, they didn’t. Her prime motivation was to protect the autonomy of the two canyons, Los Peñasquitos and Lopez, long, walkable swales of dusty trails and chaparral. These protected spaces, Schriber says, herald a healing balm, what residents think of as their Sorrento home, “a perfect urban-vs-nature environment.”
In no time, the culprit emerged: the eight-member, authoritarian assessment-district, the Mira Mesa Planning Group. They branded Sorrento Valley a “subarea” of Mira Mesa, as well as the prosaic “Western Mira Mesa,” in part, Schriber observes, because “no one ever questions them.” Suzette did. At Kevin Faulconer’s office, she fulminated, only to be told, Scriber recalls, “no one would fight their battles for them.” If members wanted a community identity, they must form a town council.
Which they did, only to discover the irksome fact that the City is bounded by all sorts of overlapping jurisdictions. The administrative overlord for Sorrento Valley is the Mira Mesa Planning Group. Which is where the signs came from. Peeved, Susan Carolin lobbied to have the Valley take on its police department’s designation as Sorrento Valley — in her words, their “most accurate identity.”
To become Sorrento Valley (again), the quartet of women got instructions via Google to form a 501(c)(3) corporation, chartering tax-exempt status, a board, rules, meetings, minutes, and encouraging citizen input. First order of business was an orchestrated protest against the neighboring neighborhood thieves, the Mira Mesans. At a town meeting, the incensed Sorrento Valley residents pushed back, a hundred sympathizers chanting slogans and wearing T-shirts, “Stop the Mira Mesa Land Grab!”
Since then, these women, along with others (husbands and friends), have accomplished a rare act of civic heroism, scratching a community into being, one monthly Marriott common-room confab at a time. Actually, I should say reviving a community into being: Sorrento Valley, for a long time an expanse of grazing and mooing (the cattle story comes later), has existed as a place name for more than 150 years.
What is a community?
First would be an agreed-upon boundary. Wayne Cox, a member of the town council, tells me that Sorrento Valley is not an amorphous adjunct to Mira Mesa. There’s a clear line: the north-south Camino Santa Fe, from Los Peñasquitos to Carroll Canyon Road.
Second is the “raised” consciousness of its community members, who trigger a mini-Tea Party, which ignites the torches of those who care the most about where they live, and who put in thousands of hours of time volunteering, forgoing Netflix to read five-year community-plan reports.
Indicative of this are Susan Carolin’s pursuits: president of the town council; the captain of the “Next Door” program, a website meetup; representative of the San Diego Coalition of Neighborhoods; and author of articles about the Valley. For Cox, the thing that got his goat was that the Mira Mesa bosses had no interest in hearing either his voice or those of his neighbors, homeowners and condo renters in the Valley. Thanks to Cox and a few disgruntled, dedicated others, the town has a voice now.