I’ll be honest. I’d never been to Tierrasanta before this week. After almost 10 years in this city, I only had a vague idea where it was.

I decided to start my coverage of the District 7 City Council race in Tierrasanta for a simple reason: It’s slap-bang in the middle of the district’s new boundaries and, as such, seemed like as good a place as any to start my coverage of the district’s city council election.

On Monday, after meeting with one of the candidates, Rik Hauptfeld, who lives in the neighborhood, I had lunch with Scott Hasson, president of the Tierrasanta Community and Town Council.

A couple of local issues quickly emerged from those two meetings:

Tierrasanta is a quiet, bedroom community, and Tierrasantans like it that way.

A sign with the tagline “the island in the hills” welcomes you as you drive into the neighborhood. That’s a moniker that’s stuck because of Tierrasanta’s rather odd road system.

Three main roads dead-end in the community, and there’s been controversy in the past over plans to extend those roads and connect the beach communities of western San Diego with the East County.

Tierrasantans are worried about fire.

And they probably should be. The neighborhood is crisscrossed with wide, verdant canyons, some of which house utility poles. A big concern in the community is brush management or thinning ground vegetation in the canyons, so they can’t act as conduits for wildfires in East County.

I decided to drill further into these two topics, so I got in touch with a guy called Lee Campbell. Hauptfeld told me Campbell is one of those local activists who work tirelessly to draw attention to the issues everyone else pretty much ignores until they become really important. Issues like whether brush is being cleared from canyons on time.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Lee Campbell is a fire-protection activist in District 7.

Fire in the Canyons

I met Campbell in the parking lot at the Tierrasanta Community Park on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. Almost before he was out of his truck, my guide was pointing out the dry, scented eucalyptus trees fringing the park.

“A fire would come right through here,” Campbell told me, gesticulating towards the offending trees. “You see those crowns at the tops of the trees? Not all of those leaves would burn, but the embers would jump from tree to tree, and before long it would be in the houses.”

Campbell pulled maps and charts from the back of his truck and I was soon schooled on several fire-related topics, from the protective oil that coats eucalyptus leaves, to the proper gauge of wire netting to install under the eaves of one’s house: “They say quarter-inch is OK, but I think an eight-of-an-inch is about right,” Campbell said.

Because Tierrasanta has lots of homes that overlook canyons, residents like Campbell are worried that fires that start in the East County could be whipped down those canyons by hot Santa Ana winds.

That’s typically been how wildfires have spread in San Diego. So, in the wake of the 2007 wildfires, the city boosted its efforts to thin brush in canyons that abut people’s homes.

In Tierrasanta, that effort’s gone pretty well.

Chris Zirkle, deputy director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department’s Open Space Division, said his crews have worked once through Tierrasanta in the last couple of years. But he said some areas are now due for another visit.

Zirkle said his department works its way around the city on a priority schedule that was determined by the Fire Department. He said the mayor and City Council have consistently supported the brush management program, and have kept funding flowing to it.

I’ve only done a quick, preliminary interview with two of the District 7 candidates so far, but one question I now have for all of them is whether they will continue to support the city’s brush management program, or whether they think the money should be better spent elsewhere.

In the meantime, here’s a little video I took of Campbell showing me a canyon in Tierrasanta that was recently cleared:

Roads to Nowhere

If you get on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach and drive east, the road will become Balboa Avenue as it crosses underneath Interstate 5.

The road will remain Balboa as it crosses first the 805 and the 163 freeways, through used car lots and past dim sum joints. Then, as it crosses the 15, Balboa becomes Tierrasanta Boulevard, a road that becomes increasingly bucolic as it winds its way languidly through the quiet neighborhood.

Then, abruptly, as the road starts to fall into the San Diego River Valley, it ends.

There’s a construction site. Then gravel. Then dust.

You can’t see it from here, but less than a mile away, down in the valley, there is industry and traffic. Lots of it. In the depths of Mission Gorge Road, a steady stream of cement trucks and semis, work vans and commuter cars flows from Santee to Mission Valley past strip malls, a hospital and industrial lots.

The city of San Diego master plan calls for Tierrasanta Boulevard to one day be connected to Mission Gorge Road, something local residents say would ruin Tierrasanta’s charm, turning their “island” into a thoroughfare for beach-going East County residents and providing a short-cut for semis and commuters traveling across the city.

“That would be a traffic nightmare, it would change our quality of life here forever,” Hasson told me.

But Hasson says the road is dead. It will never happen, he says. He’s been living and breathing “the road issue” for years now, and said nobody wants to see the city’s master plan achieved, he said.

“Everybody’s against that thing,” he told me over lunch yesterday.

In something of an irony, a development project will likely put an end to Tierrasanta’s fears about becoming the city’s newest traffic short-cut.

Arnie Veldkamp, a representative of Superior Ready Mix Concrete, which owns a swath of land in the gorge and is planning a large apartment project there, said his company will ask the City Council remove all mention of the proposed road in its planning blueprint.

Veldkamp said city staff agree with the amendment, but the vote would be up to the city council.

So, I’ve got another question for the District 7 candidates: Would they support such an amendment, and should Tierrasanta remain an island in the hills?

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education.

He’s spending the week in District 7 getting to know the issues, residents and City Council candidates. What should he know? What should he ask?

You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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