Monday, Jan. 8, 2007 | For a place that likes to stay under the radar, this community’s name kind of lets the cat out of the bag. It’s called Bonita, the Spanish word for “beautiful.”

But in San Diego County, a place’s name doesn’t always typify its reputation. Escondido hardly stays “hidden,” after all.

If county residents have even heard of Bonita, they probably don’t know much more about it than its name. This county is a quilt with more than 3 million residents in 18 cities and 50-plus unincorporated areas. Its geography ranges from coastline to desert to mountains to lakes and its weather can be mild and wild, all at once. The county’s boundary and freeways stitch these communities together, threads of unity amid vast diversity.

Bonita’s a square in this quilt, a small square, a leftover patch from an earlier era. It’s a place you probably wouldn’t pass through unless you meant to. But if you go there, you encounter a place where the residents are familiar even though you’ve never met. Where the streets are named Good Karma Lane and Belle Bonnie Brae Road. And where residents will fight tooth and nail to keep their rural identity from being snarled in the jaws of faceless development.

The self-proclaimed former Lemon Capital of the World was once a place where horses outnumbered humans. And the place lives up to its name, too, with lush, green patches of eucalyptus and pepper trees that accentuate million-dollar-home cul-de-sacs winding through the hills of the Sweetwater Valley.

A few decades ago, Bonita Road was two lanes and quiet. So quiet you could ride your horse on it to the grocery store or the post office.

Now, a Wild West-looking shopping plaza with a Vons grocery store forms the de facto town center, across the street from the newly constructed Bonita library, museum and public safety center.

Nearly everyone has a different understanding of where Bonita technically begins or ends. The present day Bonita Road is a major thoroughfare. Though it leads to the commercial and cultural centers of the Bonita community, parts of it are technically in Chula Vista. Up the road, past Central Avenue, the residences have Bonita addresses and pay property taxes to the county.

Residents and business owners agree on State Route 54 as the northern boundary, but some consider the southern one to be some point up Otay Lakes Road, others say it’s about a mile south of the river. It’s bounded on the east by the Sweetwater Reservoir and some of the hills and park reserves surrounding the valley. And in the west, Interstate 805 marks the line.

And so, Bonita’s boundary lines seem nearly as undefined as the younger brother’s side of a shared bedroom. But the residents don’t mind the blurred lines in their community. They know many people in the county have never even heard of Bonita. Many of its residents know it to be an under-the-radar, “undiscovered gem” in the South Bay. And they’re happy to keep it that way.

“Bonita is a frame of mind,” says a white-mustachioed George Kost, a longtime community activist and former U.S. Navy commander. Kost, deemed Mr. Bonita or Bonita George by many residents, celebrated his 90th birthday in the banquet room of the Bonita Golf Club this weekend.

“A lot of people want to say Bonita even if they live in Chula Vista,” he says.

County Supervisor Greg Cox agrees the Bonitans are a proud bunch.

“They’re fiercely independent,” Cox says of the residents. “Bonita likes being Bonita. Who cares about the jurisdiction? As long as people call 9-1-1 and somebody responds, it doesn’t matter.”

Boundaries aside, residents say all they care about is that Bonita is truly bonita. During daylight hours, even on weekdays, dozens of walkers, joggers, cyclists and, even still, equestrians use local trails. Some self-proclaimed “old-timer” community members exhibit a faraway expression when acknowledging the community has changed. Some say it’s only “rural” because they remember it that way.

Development in the South Bay, especially Eastlake in Chula Vista, dragged traffic and thousands of people to the region. The changes of the last few decades, and especially those of recent years, inspired involvement among residents in Bonita’s several civic groups. Most recently, a 2005 winter flood of Central Avenue brought a push for county funding for a mitigation project. And discussions over the location of State Route 125 — and its toll portion called the South Bay Expressway — has become contentious as Bonitans hope desperately to keep the Eastlake traffic out of their community. That route is slated to be finished this year, and its plans have been revised based on some feedback from Bonita.

“We’ve kind of been overtaken with traffic,” says Carol Freno, a homeowner in Bonita since 1965. “We’ll have to see whether people will really use a toll road.”

The 2000 Census shows more than 12,400 residents in Bonita, many of whom live in some of the housing tracts built in the 1960s through the 1980s. The median age is 40.6, 7 years older than the overall county’s median age in 2000. And the community is more diverse than even some residents know — of Bonita’s residents, more than 30 percent are Latino.

“If you look at the names on the civic association, the business association, the Friends of the Library, the museum — there’s about 100 names on there, the same names,” says resident Rick Blacklock, a Bonita homeowner who is involved in the civic association. “And they’re all, for the most part, white.”

Blacklock, whose work as a consultant takes him into Mexico quite often, says he moved to Bonita because of its proximity to the border and the availability of land for his vintage car collection. He and his wife keep two goats, Bonnie and Clyde, a dog and a cat.

At about $70,000 in 1999, the median household income for Bonita was nearly 50 percent higher than the county’s median income at that time, about $47,000.

“There’s money in Bonita,” Blacklock says. “You’ve got a bunch of rich hicks here.”

Bonita, perhaps due to some of these factors, has been eyed for annexation by bordering cities. The last serious annexation talks were when Cox was mayor of Chula Vista in the late 1980s.

Kost, often deemed the unofficial mayor of Bonita by several politicians, says being annexed by a large city would be a “kiss of death” for Bonita.

Bonita activists created a unique public safety office where volunteers from the Chula Vista police, the county sheriff’s office and the state highway patrol take calls. On-duty officers from all three branches make the center a stopping point for a cup of coffee or a restroom break — and are, therefore, often just minutes from responding to a local problem.

Now, Kost says, Bonitans been able to achieve so much — or keep so much from happening — that other communities come to their meetings to see how they’re run. One recent meeting in the Bonita fire station involved discussions on the safety of some of the riding trails and a lively conversation among the dozen or so in attendance about effective — and legal — ways to shoo away crows, which have arrived in the community in an onslaught in recent weeks.

The winning solution: Opening and closing paper bags in a hurry sends gusts of air to knock the birds from their perches. BB guns are no longer the solution of choice here.

But the issues aren’t always tame. If necessary, Bonita has proven it will fight to be heard. When I-805 was being planned about 30 years ago, Bonitans fought against its planned route, which threatened to bifurcate their community. The road was moved and only a small chunk of land ended up west of it.

The vague boundaries for the community hark back to a day when Bonita was filled with sprawling farming estates and far fewer residents. After California became an American state in the mid-1800s, three brothers purchased the 26,000-acre rancho, of which Bonita was part, for $30,000 and started parceling it out. Those brothers, the Kimballs, brought citrus trees to the valley and soon more estate owners started growing fruit trees, even growing unique forms of several citrus fruits, like a lemon with a thin rind.

The valley needed water to support the fruit industry, so the Sweetwater Dam was built in the 1880s and was one of the largest dams in the world constructed up to that point. Soon, a railroad was built through the valley. Years of challenging weather conditions, including a seven-year drought and extreme high (110-degree) and low (28-degree) temperatures in 1913 destroyed many of the lemon groves. The dam overflowed a few years later, washing out the railroad and further damaging the valley’s crops. The area’s dairies stayed alive and so did the community’s small shops and local haunts. Slowly, the area grew more developed as residential builders bought up parcels of farmland.

Flooding has interrupted progress in the valley as long as it’s been settled. Now the county’s working on a $10-million project that aims to mitigate future floods like the one a year ago.

“We have the same climate advantage as Rancho Santa Fe,” said Don Scovel, vice president and treasurer of the Bonita Highlands Homeowners’ Association, referring to the canyons in the community. “And the natives have known this for a long, long time.”

Perhaps there’s little buzz about Bonita in the rest of the county because there’s no room left to build homes on in Bonita, Scovel and Kost say.

“There’s no growth,” Kost says. “You’ve got to tear something down to build.” And Kost and others have proven that plans to tear something down won’t be passed without a fight here.

Kost says Bonita is the most beautiful place he’s seen, after living in or visiting 35 countries and 49 states. His civic involvement is rooted in his desire for it to stay that way, he says. “I meet one-on-one with each politician two to four times a year,” he says. “And I tell them, ‘This is what I think you should do in the next six months.’”

Indeed, those who’ve fought over driveway placement and speed limits and freeway entrances in efforts to guard Bonita’s identity say vigilance is key. Some wonder what will happen to the area’s various boards when their members age — the younger generations of homeowners aren’t very involved.

“We’ve been fought over by National City and Chula Vista,” Freno says. “We’ve tried to keep our identity. Now there are new residents in Bonita. I don’t know where our counterparts are.”

But Freno hopes that the prestige of Bonita compared to the cookie-cutter developments in the South Bay will inspire younger people to get involved. “It’s always been an island in the sea that is South County,” she says.

And until that happens, Kost says he already has plans to celebrate his 100th birthday in a decade. And he doesn’t plan to back down from defending Bonita’s interests.

“I want to die right here, in this house,” he says.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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