Bonita Dilemma : Arguments Over Annexation Open Old Wounds, Split Area

Times Staff Writer

When Sugar Babe died, a victim of urbanization, nobody imagined that she might become a symbol for an annexation effort to merge determinedly rural Bonita with the state's fastest-growing city, Chula Vista.

Bonita, with its wooded estates, horse trails, rustic town center and countrified ambiance, was Sugar Babe's home until one evening in November, when Sugar Babe was struck by a car on Sweetwater Road and had to be destroyed. The handsome mare's rider was not badly hurt in the accident but will be a long time recovering from the loss of the horse.

The accident was a graphic illustration of the clash between life styles occurring in the Sweetwater Valley--the relaxed, bucolic Bonita style and the aggressive urbanization efforts of other South Bay communities around it.

Now, some residents of the unincorporated communities of Bonita and Sunnyside are seeking annexation in the hopes of preserving the environment that allows youngsters to ride their horses along valley roads. Citizens for a Better Bonita, proponents for merger with Chula Vista, say it is the way to keep Bonita rural by gaining more control over its aggressive neighbor city, over land use decisions in the valley and over traffic controls on the roads that traverse the once-quiet valley.

The group is circulating petitions proposing annexation to Chula Vista, detachment from the Spring Valley Sanitation District and dissolution of the Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District. When 350 or more signatures are obtained--an event expected within a week or so--the petitions, an application and a hefty fee ($3,150) will be filed with the Local Agency Formation Commission. There, the annexation, dissolution and detachment applications will be studied, subjected to public hearings and voted on by a board of local elected officials.

Approval by LAFCO would set the wheels rolling for a valleywide vote next fall. Or, with LAFCO's approval of the annexation, the three directors of the Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District could decide the issue without a public vote.

John Green, a retired educator and member of the fire board, said directors are remaining neutral on the annexation move and have no plans to take any action until after a vote of valley residents. But, he conceded, the board has the power to dissolve the 7.7-square-mile fire district, an action that would annex the entire Bonita-Sunnyside area to Chula Vista unless 25% of the district's property owners protested.

A 25% protest would force an annexation election; a 50% or greater protest would automatically cancel the annexation attempt, LAFCO analysts said.

The other two members of the fire board, Frank Kral, a San Diego police sergeant, and Paul Southworth, an investor and developer, could not be reached for comment on whether the board might dissolve the fire district and approve annexation of Bonita-Sunnyside to Chula Vista without a vote by residents.

Gretchen Burkey, a longtime Bonita resident who supported annexation to Chula Vista when the issue last came to a vote in 1971, now believes that it is an idea whose time has passed.

"Until the mayor of Chula Vista can show me some concrete examples of what Chula Vista can do to improve Bonita, I have to oppose annexation at this time," Burkey said. "In 1971, I thought it was the way to go in order to protect our rural way of life. Now, however, there is very little left to protect."

Burkey admits frustration at her determined but often unsuccessful attempts to prevent county planning commissioners and the county Board of Supervisors from approving apartment complexes, road widenings, shopping centers and subdivisions in her unincorporated hometown and in county-controlled areas to the east.

But, from what she sees of Chula Vista's go-go expansion race, she doubts that annexation to that city would slow the urban surge or protect what little is left of Bonita's rural life style. She doubts, for instance, that Bonita can ever again become a place where Sugar Babe could be safe from traffic speeding past the community.

One Bonita resident, who admits bitterly that he has no better alternative, said Chula Vista's growth management plan seems to be: "Annex it, then pave it or build apartments on it."

George Kost is president of the Sweetwater Valley Civic Assn., one of the groups that have served as quasi-government for the 13,000 or so residents in the unincorporated portions of the valley. Kost spent "hundreds of hours" in 1981 writing a proposal that concluded that annexation to Chula Vista would be the best move for the Bonita-Sunnyside area. Now, however, he is leery of the "upstarts" who, he feels, are trying to sell residents a pig in a poke.

"I want all the marbles all out on the table," he said. "I want to know what game we are playing--what we are going to get and what we are going to give away--before I get into it this time."

His 1980-81 efforts for annexation went for naught when community meetings showed there was overwhelming opposition among valley residents to a merger of Bonita and Chula Vista. He criticized current annexation advocates for their failure to test community opinion or to negotiate terms with Chula Vista officials that would guarantee that Bonita could remain rural--"a place where you can have dogs and horses and chickens and cats" without breaking city ordinances.

He is concerned that city ordinances would require Bonitans to install sidewalks, curbs and gutters along their streets, removing the last remnants of rural living.

"Now is the time we should be getting these matters settled, in writing, because now we have some leverage," Kost said. "I'm not against annexation. I'm neutral at this point. I'll make up my mind when all the facts are in. And I'll make up my mind based on what is good for Bonita, not what is good for Chula Vista."

There are many good features to a marriage of the exclusive valley residential areas with their fast-growing neighbors that even the staunchest valley isolationist can't refute.

Steve Hogan, a San Diego city auditor and a leader of Citizens for a Better Bonita, stresses that Bonita-Sunnyside residents will have more clout with Chula Vista government than can be mustered in county political circles. Chula Vista "has more impact on us than the county does, and we need a voice in those decisions."

Though Chula Vista Mayor Greg Cox and other council members have officially remained neutral in the annexation drive, the Chula Vista planning department prepared the necessary application papers for submission to LAFCO with the council's blessing, and Cox has delivered more than one pitch for the merger to Sweetwater Valley community groups.

Jerry Prior, Cox's campaign manager in recent elections, is co-chairman of the Citizens for a Better Bonita and devout believer that the two communities should be one. "We want to stay as we are (in Bonita) and have a say in our future," he said.

Prior sees relatively clear sailing through the maze of bureaucratic actions that must be overcome before the annexation can come to a vote in the valley. He pointed out that most of Bonita's rich commercial tax base has already been annexed into Chula Vista boundaries and said that the city should be responsible for providing public services for the surrounding residential areas that support the valley's malls.

Annexation of the entire Bonita-Sunnyside area would ensure Bonita's receiving higher levels of police services and more local control without increased property taxes, he said.

A few years back, Chula Vista reached out six miles eastward to annex a 3,000-acre tract being touted as a future "self-contained community" of homes, schools, business and industry, stores and recreational facilities. EastLake is being built. Last year, after a number of false starts, Chula Vista took in the venerable Castle Park/Montgomery area that had been an unincorporated population pocket between Chula Vista and South San Diego. Now, at almost every Chula Vista City Council meeting, discussion or action on various annexations, large and small, are on the agenda.

To Burkey and others who have fought over the years to prevent urbanization of Bonita, the track record of their aggressive neighbor is not heartening. But, she admits, annexation to Chula Vista may be the best chance that the unincorporated valley has to gain some say in its destiny, to control speeding traffic and overbuilding, and to protect its quality of life.

Burkey recalls the vicious campaign for annexation in 1971, when dogs were poisoned and death threats were delivered at night. She doesn't think that this campaign will repeat that nightmare of 15 years ago. Back then, there were only about 6,000 residents in the valley, she said, and now population estimates range from 12,000 to 20,000.

Old-timers in the valley have bitter memories about the 1971 annexation attempt that are slow to fade, she said, and many would probably vote for status quo and against annexation. But it will be the "newcomers," who came to Bonita to enjoy its rural atmosphere and now want to halt the influx of others before that atmosphere disappears, who will decide the valley's fate, she said.

She and many other old-timers can only sigh and wish there was a way to turn back the decades to a time when valley wildflowers and horse corrals outnumbered automobiles and subdivisions.

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