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TOP EAST COUNTY STORIES OF THE YEAR 2011




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By Miriam Raftery

December 30, 2011 (San Diego's's East County) – It’s been a year of epic changes around the world and across America. Winds of change have also swept across East County in 2011--with more changes in store in the coming year.

Who would have predicted that in 2011 bin Ladin would be captured, the Iraq War would end, and dictators would be overthrown in Libya and Egypt? Or that a tsunami and nuclear meltdown would strike Japan? In Washington and Sacramento, budget battles occupied headlines, while the Occupy movement took to the streets to protest bank bailouts and growing wealth disparity. The good news? Job growth is steadily increasing.The bad news is that poverty rates are at an all-time high.

All of these stories have local impacts. But East County also generated its own major news. Big energy projects are bringing winds of change to our rural areas. Cuts to redevelopment are impacting local cities. Citizens scored some key victories. A major blackout struck our region and the Eagle Fire scorched 14,000 acres. Political also districts shifted due to reapportionment.

We cheered as Helix High’s formidable football team won the state CIF championship, and we celebrated some landmark anniversaries – Julian’s 100th and Grossmont College’s 50th. Now we're gearing up for the parties of the century as La Mesa and El Cajon plan their centennials in 2012.

These are some of the year's top stories; scroll down for a walk down memory lane with our full list of top news in 2011.
 

AGRICULTURE

A pesky problem:  Plagued by eye gnats from two organic farms, residents of Jacumba and Escondido have asked Supervisors to take action.  The County is weighing whether to declare the gnats vectors—a solution that would give relief to residents, but the organic farming industry fears loss of organic croplands if forced pesticide spraying is mandated.   Supervisors have asked the Farm Bureau to come up with a proposed solution http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7749 following protests by East County residents:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7275

BLACKOUT!

Where were you when the lights went out?   A county-wide blackout September 8 that also affected portions of Arizona and Mexico laid bare the vulnerabilities of our power grid.  East County Magazine issued numerous alerts during and immediately after the crisis informing our readers about the scope and cause of the crisis, boil-water alerts, and other vital information.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7186 Our readers also shared their stories of where they were when the lights went out—and the lessons that they learned: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7204

BORDER ISSUES

Cross border trucking:  It’s not often that San Diego’s conservative and liberal members of Congress agree on much of anything.  But Republican Duncan Hunter and Democrat Bob Filner joined together to oppose cross-border trucking originally proposed by President Bush and approved by President Obama.  Read why:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6223

COMMUNITY PLANNING

Local planning groups future at risk:  Local elected planning groups fear that their days are numbered, as the San Diego County Board of Supervisors heard recommendations from the Red Tape Reduction Task Force in December, but postponed a decision until February 2012.  Depending which options Supervisors choose, local communities could have far less input on proposed development projects—or even see their local planning boards eliminated completely. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8073

CITIZENS’ ACTIVISM

Public nuisance halted:  For years, residents complained about emissions from a crematorium on the boundary of Lakeside and El Cajon. But a photo taken by ECM photographer Dennis Richardson provided proof of the dirty proof.  Following an investigation, the County found “horrific” violations and shut down the operation permanently. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6040

Smart meter opposition grows:  La Mesa resident Susan Brinchman launched a website to oppose smart meters after experiencing health probems following installation of the wireless device by SDG&E at her home.  She soon learned that many Californians had similar complaints.  Joining together, the activists’ efforts are beginning to bear fruit. To date, at least 43 counties have come out in opposition and 10 have banned smart meters: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6663. In December, PG&E became the Grinch that stole Christmas by shutting off power to homeowners who had their smart meters replaced with analog meters http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8142, but later backed down. SDG&E, meanwhile, refuses to allow homeowners with smart meters to have them removed.

Tax hawks take wing:  Irked by repeated rate hikes and generous pensions in the Helix Water District, local taxpayers formed a new watchdog group, the East County Tax Hawks: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5607

SDG&E wants to raise your rates:  State regulators from the California Public Utilities Commission got an earful during a public hearing in El Cajon, where residents voiced outrage over a rate hike proposed by SDG&E for our region, where utility rates are already the highest in the nation. Rubbing salt in the wound, SDG&E also wants to charge fees to homeowners who invest in solar power for their homes. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7550

Reaching out and touching someone:  A Lyons Valley llama rancher lost his prized animal to a rattlesnake bite after finding his phone line dead.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6805 .  So when the CPUC held a hearing in San Diego on a proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, commissioners heard the llama ranchers’ story—and learned that many AT&T ratepayers in East County have been plagued by long outages and inadequate line maintenance.  Commissioners were clearly moved, despite prior testimony from many singing the praises of AT&T. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6807 .  Soon after the hearing, the U.S. Justice Department sued to block the mega-merger http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7093 .  This month, AT&T announced it has abandoned the merger plans.  Did local voices make a difference?  We may never know.

 COUNCIL ACTIONS

El Cajon voters to weigh charter city measure: El Cajon’s Council wants the century-old community to become a charter city – a move that could save money on construction costs, but is opposed by labor due to fears of lower wages.  After ECM reported on salary abuses in the infamous city of Bell made possible by the city’s charter status http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7686 , El Cajon’s council voted to adopt an  “anti-Bell amendment” limiting salaries, then unanimously approved putting the charter city measure before voters.  http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/8253

Residents’ squawks sway Santee council on fowl issue: Realizing it laid an egg after an initial vote against allowing citizens to own chickens ruffled feathers among irked residents, Santee’s City Council changed its’ mind, voting to allow chickens (but not roosters) to come home to roost in backyards across Santee: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7541

A sour deal for Lemon Grove's kids:  Faced with a looming budget deficit, Lemon Grove’s City Council voted to scrap its entire recreation department, eliminating youth sports and other programs: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6090

No Fair Trade for La Mesa:  La Mesa’s Council voted against becoming a Fair Trade City.  The designation would not have cost a penny, but aimed to give information to city residents on where to find Fair Trade products locally.  Fair Trade items are certified to assure consumers that products are not made with slave labor, that workers or craftspeople overseas are paid a fair wage, and that environmental and sustainable farming practices are used. Supporters have vowed to try again, however, so stay tuned.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7538

Alpine planner rescinds resignation:  Environmentalist George Barnett failed to disclose that his Backcountry Land Trust took grant funds from SDG&E—even though he chaired an advisory committee on SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink issues for the Alpine Planning Group.  After the news broke, Barnett resigned, then rescinded his resignation after the chair refused to accept it. While Barnett appeared to violate the spirit of his board’s conflict of interest rules, county counsel ruled that he didn’t break the law.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7362

 CRIME

Organized crime ring busted:  Federal and local authorities arrested 60 people linked to an Iraqi organized crime ring in El Cajon—some with ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel.  Offenses ranged from illegal gambling, drugs and weapon sales to attempting to sell an explosive device to an undercover officer. http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/6970

Sex predator released in Campo:  For Campo residents, it seemed a no-brainer that a sexually violent predator convicted of raping four women after breaking into their homes shouldn’t be turned loose in their community. But residents lost the battle, as authorities approved release in Campo of parolee Frank William Johnson, who is afflicted with brain cancer.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7119

EDUCATION

“Armageddon” for community colleges:  Leaders of local six community college districts warned that the latest budget cuts amount to “Armageddon” for students:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6181

 

ENERGY

Winds of change:  The County is considering a wind ordinance to make it easier to erect massive wind farms across rural East County (Changes are in the wind: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/8123 .  In December, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved the Tule Wind project in McCain Valley, though other governmental approvals are needed to build the controversial project: http://ww w.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8221 .  But the march toward industrial-scale clean wind energy, a move that can reduce greenhouse gases, is facing growing opposition from local residents here and around the world. In January, East County residents heard from experts on negative health and property value impacts from wind turbines http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/5326 . In December, a wildlife biologist penned a piece warning about risks posed by large turbines to eagles and other birds of prey http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/8122, raising the question of whether wind energy is truly “green.”

Sunrise Powerlink Construction:  By year’s end, the majority of the Sunrise Powerlink construction has been completed, but at high cost to many East County communities.  Gone are the once pristine views in El Monte Valley and other once-scenic areas. http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/6773  East County organizations filed a trio of lawsuits seeking to halt the Powerlink project http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5227   and still hold out hope that a court may rule against SDG&E and order the lines removed, after the 9th Circuit court kept a critical case alive http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6820 . Opponents also staged a protest on the steps of SDG&E downtown http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5669  .  Meanwhile merchants in Alpine struggled to keep doors open amid construction, and some lost that battle, closing their doors, while a Lakeside parrot breeder has fought to save her traumatized flock http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/6929 .  SDG&E faced struggles as its helicopters were grounded for violating no-fly zones around eagle nests, http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7364  dropping two 16,000 pound tower sections, and other safety concerns  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7313 .  That’s after ECM videos revealed  violations and an effort to cover-up a major accident:   http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5868  and http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/6418 . An ECM special report revealed serious safety issues involving sky cranes, the helicopters used in these heavy lifting operations http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6449.

Court halts desert solar project:  After Native Americans sued to block a desert solar farm threatening cultural sites, a federal judge halted construction. The decision could have major ramifications for large-scale solar projects proposed n East County and across the nation:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5023

FIERY ISSUES

Scorched: San Miguel Fire Districti’s board voted to eliminate fire protection at its Dehesa station and impose steep cuts on firefighter benefits as it faced those budget blues: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7685

Fire parcel fee sparks heated debate:  The state legislature approved a fire parcel fee on rural properties to stave off deeper cuts in firefighting: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7843 .  Flooded with objections, state fire board officials twice revised the fee and most recently, postponed final action until next year:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8169

FEMA to disaster victims: send back every penny:  An ECM investigation revealed the outlandishness of a federal agency’s demand for local fire victims to pay back their disaster payment years after the 2007 Harris Fire damaged their home: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6155 . Elected officials voiced their outrage after our story broke: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6169. Fortunately, this tale has a happen ending: FEMA backed down, retracting its refund demand from Potrero fire victims: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6367 .

GOING GREEN

A community garden for La Mesa:  Residents will soon have fresh vegetables, thanks to a new community garden in the works to be planted at Helix High School:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7798

Greensmart Technical College Comes to San Diego:  ECM’s publisher, Heartland Coalition, through its United Green division is helping to bring this manufacturer of electric car engines to our region—along with  good paying jobs:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7906

Santee mayor sparks heated debate on global warming:  Mayor Randy Voepel trash-talked a local clean energy group http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7264  sparking this response http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7314 and some heated controversy.  Regardless of one’s views on climate change, is it bad for our economy to discourage companies in the fast-growing clean-tech and green-tech sectors from locating in East County?

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!

Grossmont College and Grossmont Center turned 50 in 2011, celebrating with ‘60s style festivities: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7338  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7654

Julian celebrated its centennial http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7401 .  Now La Mesa and El Cajon are gearing up for their centennials in 2012. La Mesa wants to hear your memorable stories: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8107   El Cajon seeks volunteers for its centennial celebration, as East County gears up for the parties of the century: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7532

HEALTH

Medical marijuana access goes to pot:  The first licensed medical marijuana dispensary in San Diego County opened in El Cajon this summer http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6731 .  But relief for medical marijuana patients proved short-lived.  Although such use is legal under California law, it’s still a violation of federal law. This fall, the feds cracked down, shutting down California dispensaries http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7588 .

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL

Bin Ladin killed:  In a daring raid, Navy seals killed the Al Qaeda leader in his Pakistan hide-out.  A world away in East County, local Iraqi Christians and Muslim leaders shared their reactions with ECM:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6059

 Iraq War ends: For many local families, the best news of this year will be the return of loved ones serving overseas, as soldiers deployed in the Iraq War come home by year’s end:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7645

NATO ends Libyan mission; Ghadafi death confirmed:   The Obama administration took heat initially for leading military efforts to aid Libyan rebels at a time when the U.S. was already fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this conflict ended without a single loss of life for U.S. forces—and with the death of dictator Moammar Ghadafi at the hands of Libyan rebels: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7650

Impacts of Japan quake and tsunami felt in San Diego:  Within moments of the devastating 9.2 earthquake striking Japan, ECM sent out alerts warning about a tsunami heading for the Japanese coast http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5670 , posting frequent updates:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5671.  Our own intern, Taka Takayuki, was in Tokyo sending us updates, including an astonishing video of the tsunami striking Sendei, the quake’s epicenter:   http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5949 .

Nuclear meltdown:  As the unthinkable unfolded in Japan with meltdown of nuclear reactors, a new Congressional study revealed dangerous safety loopholes for the U.S. nuclear industry: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6189. California’s Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein called for an investigation into the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant north of San Diego” http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5718.  Activists raised the prospect of San Diego becoming a nuclear ghost town similar to Fukushima: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6014 . A look back at the children of Chernobyl reveals the horrifying deformities to those within the 50-mile exclusion zone near the world’s former worst nuclear disaster in Russia:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6018 . That’s relevant here, since much of East County lies within 50 miles of the twin nuclear reactors at San Onofre.

OCCUPYING EVERYTHING

Financial protests spread around the globe, with millions marching in over 950 cities worldwide in October http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7606 .  In the U.S., the Occupy Wall Street movement soon spread to San Diego, where thousands marched downtown, including many East County residents:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7505.  Occupiers marched to big banks to withdraw money, then took their messages onto bridges and even the aisles of local Walmart stores  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7985. East County activist Ray Lutz, a former Congressional candidate, has filed a civil rights lawsuit after he was arrested for setting up a table to register voters at the Occupy site at the Civic Center Plaza http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7909

POLITICS

Political shakeup for East County:  Redistricting will shift the boundaries next election for much of our region.  Duncan Hunter’s district remain solidly Republican, but Brian Bilbray’s district is nearly evenly split down party lines. Susan Davis’ district shifts eastward, picking up La Mesa, Mt. Helix and much of El Cajon.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6408 .  Meanwhile long-time Democratic Congressman Bob Filner shocked many by announcing his retirement from Congress to run for mayor of San Diego http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7320 , setting the stage for a horserace to fill his vacant seat in Congress next year. 

At least three candidates have declared plans to run against Duncan Hunter, including Teri Linnell, a  Republican Tea Party leader, and two Democrats—"working man" David Secor and Julian activist Connie Frankowiak: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7509; http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7801 http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7714http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8131

State budget cuts:   When the budget axe fell, ECM provided analysis of who would benefit, and who would be harmed: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6567

Government shutdown threatened:  When a Congressional deadlock threatened to shut down the government, ECM gave you guidelines on what would be affected—and what would not:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5884   We also provided details on the compromise to prevent the shutdown http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5920  and which local legislators voted to cut funds for disaster victims as part of a shut-down related deal: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7333

POVERTY AND HOMELESSNESS

Poverty rates skyrocket:  It’s official: El Cajon now has the highest poverty rate in San Diego County, at nearly 30 percent.  Poverty is up across the nation, with 22% of all children n American now living in poverty: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7449

East County mayors react to homeless findings:  An estimated 8.9% of all homeless people in the County now live in East County. But local mayors had surprisingly different reactions to the problem—ranging from empathy to outright denial:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6007

RECREATION AND TOURISM

Fatal falls:  One of East County’s most popular hiking destinations, Cedar Creek Falls, remains shut down by the U.S. Forest Service after 16-year-old Meram accidentally plunged to his death.   Originally slated to reopen in November, the closure has now been extended to April while authorities seek ways to make the trail safer—much to the disappointment of backcountry enthusiasts. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6623

State park closures:  More than 70 state parks in California, including two in San Diego’s inland regions, will close forever in July, barring action to save them. The Legislature voted to shutter the parks as a budget saving measure.  ECM visited the two local parks soon to go dark.  See them now, before they’re gone forever:  San Pasqual Battlefield State Park: A piece of history faces obliteration: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7130  A picture-perfect day on Palomar Mountain: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5539

A new website launch seeks to boost tourism to East County’s backcountry regions: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/6906

REDEVELOPMENT

On December 28, the State Supreme Court ruled that the state’s elimination of redevelopment funds is legal. The move spells dire trouble for blighted areas and redevelopment projects in San Diego and East County, but paves the way for frozen redevelopment funds to be used for public education:

http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8258 .  Earlier in the month, El Cajon eliminated its Community Development Council, amid controversy, http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7989 and at year’s end approved a planned business improvement district (PBID) instead.  La Mesa’s Council, too, held a hearing with spirited discussion on the merits of a PBID:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8154.  ECM previously ran a three-part series on the PBID proposal in La Mesa’s downtown village.  See Part I:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6980, Part II: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7105 , Part III: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7105

SPORTS

State champions:  La Mesa’s own Helix Highlanders won the California CIF football championship in what the Sacramento Bee described as a “near perfect” performance, giving us all something to cheer about:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8174

TRANSPORTATION

Party in the fast lane:  Thousands frolicked on the freeway to celebrate the grand opening of the final section of Highway 52,  connecting with Highway 67 to provide easy access from Santee to the sea. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5735

 

 

WATER

Drought ends:  Thanks to heavy winter rains, Helix Water District and other local water authorities declared an end to the drought and ended mandatory restrictions, but still asks consumers to conserve water voluntarily. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6087

Padre pulls plug on cable-ski park in Santee: After Sudweeks, the developer of a proposed cable-ski park at Santee Lakes hit the financial skids in a down economy, Padre Dam Municipal Water District cancelled the project, which had been hailed by ski buffs but opposed by residents who prefer peace and quiet.  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5761

San Vicente Dam rising: In a major engineering feet, Lakeside’s San Vicente Dam is being raised from 220 to 337 feet, increasing storage capacity from 90,000 to 242,000 acre feet.  Read about it here: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7144  and view a video of the dam-raising progress here: http://www.sdcwa.org/san-vicente-dam-raise .

Otay Water directors in hot water with taxpayer advocates:  Directors at Otay Water stirred up controversy by approving free lifetime healthcare benefits for employees: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/6935

Helix Water District turns off tap for El Monte water project:  After neighboring Padre water district ran into funding problems to supply water needed for the El Monte Valley recharge project, Helix voted to suspend the local water supply project. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7129

WHAT’S NEW

Landmark projects open in East County:  Thanks to federal stimulus funds, La Mesa completed construction on a glass elevator and sky bridge.  No more hiking up those steep stairs for trolley riders who want to visit Grossmont Center or Grossmont Hospital: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7961 .  Other new projects now open in East Count include El Cajon’s new state-of-the-art police station  http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7746  and a new library in Ramona that’s not only beautiful, but green and LEED-certified: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/7115

 

WILDFIRE

Arsonists arrested for Eagle Fire:  The Eagle Fire scorched over 14,000 acres from Borrego to Warner Springs. The blaze, which started at the Eagle Rock Training facility leased for military training on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, was later found to be arson.  But the controversy has sparked efforts by the tribe to eject the controversial Eagle Rock facility, founded by a former Blackwater executive: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7426 ; http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6798 ; http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6880 .

 

 

 

 

 

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