Deukmejian Visits Burned Neighborhood : Normal Heights Residents Worry Over Condo Encroachment by Developers

Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Deukmejian on Wednesday inspected some of the 64 homes destroyed by Sunday's Normal Heights fire, while residents met to request aid in maintaining the character of their neighborhood as they rebuild.

Mayor Roger Hedgecock led Deukmejian and other officials through the ashes of a house at the end of Cromwell Place, overlooking Interstate 8. Four San Diego firefighters described the fire to the governor, pointing and waving walkie-talkies.

"We are experiencing one of the worst fire problems and hazards that we've had in California," Deukmejian said. " . . . I hope we can do a great deal to ease some of the burden that victims of this major catastrophe have experienced."

Hedgecock said the city would complete its assessment of the damage to the area on Friday. This is the first step toward obtaining low-interest rebuilding loans for uninsured homeowners from the federal Small Business Administration under Deukmejian's declared state of emergency.

He said that new houses built to replace old ones should follow the current pattern of development in the area, which is zoned for single-family housing. Earlier in the day, about 50 residents gathered in front of the ruins of a home on 34th Street to express their fears that new, dense development on the burned lots would change the character of the neighborhood and tax their water system, which many blame for delaying control of the fire.

"We want houses similar to what they were before," said Lucille Jones, a Wilshire Drive resident, who carried a sign that read "Water Pressure Stinks" on one side and "Save Our Community Integrity" on the other. "It has to take everybody working together. A lot of talk won't do it."

Normal Heights residents' concerns about low water pressure and excessive development are longstanding, but in the aftermath of San Diego's worst fire they have become more urgent. Residents near the canyons are afraid that the massive rebuilding the community needs will attract developers wanting to build multi-unit condominiums, which in turn would increase the strain on the water mains.

"There's a fear that someone would take advantage of the tragedy (to buy up land)," said Patricia Getzel, executive director of Normal Heights Community Development Corp., which held the morning meeting on 34th Street.

The organization's chairman, Steve Temko, said most people he had talked to planned to rebuild rather than move. But he said he hadn't been able to reach many senior citizens who lost their homes.

"I don't know how many 80- or 90-year-old people will just move into an apartment," he said. "It's a lot of work to rebuild, isn't it?"

Councilwoman Gloria McColl, who spoke at the morning meeting, said the neighborhood's character would not be jeopardized even where people decide not to rebuild.

"I don't see any way to develop but to put another house on the lot," she said. "That's what the zoning says."

In addition to the destroyed homes, 20 houses were damaged in the blaze.

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