San Diego Reader (2008-02-06) Ernie Grimm
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, Border Security
The Spanish word dulzura means sweetness. And public artist Robin Brailsford found the sweet life when she moved to the hamlet of Dulzura, 30 miles east of San Diego along State Route 94. She lives in a contemporary concrete-block house/art studio on Marron (pronounced Muh-ROAN) Valley Road, a dirt road that runs from State Route 94 to the international border eight or so miles away. The concrete deck alongside her house offers a sweeping view across ten miles of land dotted with well-spaced houses and barns and rimmed with mountain ranges turning purple in the late-afternoon sun. Other than the chatter of juncos and crowned sparrows gorging themselves at Brailsford’s bird feeders, the only sound out here on the deck is the low whisper of the west wind blowing through the chaparral…that is, until a ten-wheel dump truck loaded with broken concrete growls down the road a hundred yards from the house.
“We get a couple trucks every hour or so,” Brailsford says.
The trucks haul broken concrete chunks to a new concrete recycling yard about a mile south of Brailsford’s house in an area that locals call the runway because a former owner of the land used to land his private plane there. The trucks’ sudden appearance in late December is one of two recent occurrences that have the backcountry rumor mill churning out stories at full capacity. One rumor suggests that the concrete will be ground up and used to pave Marron Valley Road. Another says the road will be not only paved but widened as much as 60 feet. Yet another has the recycled concrete being used in the construction of a new road running alongside the border. The grandest of the rumors is that the paved and widened road will lead to a new border port at the south end of Marron Valley.
The other event that’s powering the Marron Valley rumor mill also happened in late December. “It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, which is traditionally a time when nothing happens. Everybody’s on vacation that week, and no county offices were open. Well, I was out in front working in the yard when some guys came by, and it looked like they were working on the road. I asked them what they were doing, and they said that they were biologists that were hired under a $5 million grant that had been gotten by [Congressman] Duncan Hunter’s office to look into widening Marron Valley Road, which is currently a county-maintained, narrow, 15-miles-an-hour road that dead-ends at the border. They said they were looking into widening it 30 feet on both sides of the road. This is all hearsay. But they said they wanted to widen it 60 feet total and make it into a four-lane highway so that Marron Valley Road would be a feeder road to supply the major road that Duncan Hunter wants built along the border. As we spoke to them, there were other guys in orange vests going back and forth on the road in the classic white Suburbans. It definitely looked like a survey crew.”
Brailsford was alarmed at the prospect of the dirt road she lives on, which is only wide enough for two cars to pass, being widened by 60 feet and paved. So she called Congressman Hunter’s office. “I was very polite. I said, ‘It is rumored that the road is going to be widened by 60 feet, and I want to look into that.’
“ ‘Who did you hear that from?’ was the first thing that they said to me. And I said, ‘Well, I think that is kind of irrelevant. It was supposedly someone working under the subcontract work. That is irrelevant.’ And he said, ‘Do you live on the border?’ And I said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.’ And he said, ‘I don’t recall any road going in down there.’ And that is when I said, ‘I don’t care if you recall it or not. That is not what I am calling for. I am calling to find out whether it is a fact or not.’ ”
Another call placed to Duncan Hunter’s office yielded similar results. Reached at the congressman’s Washington, D.C., office, his aide Joe Kasper said that Hunter has made no appropriations requests for that area in the last few years.
Marron Valley Road is county-maintained. But Jennifer Stone, press representative for Supervisor Dianne Jacob, in whose district Marron Valley Road lies, says of the stories about a planned widening, “They’re just rumors. We’ve checked with Public Works, and they couldn’t find any projects pending for Marron Valley Road.”
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service monitors an endangered butterfly in the area. “It’s called the quino checkerspot,” says Jane Harnon, press officer for the local Fish and Wildlife office. But it couldn’t have been Fish and Wildlife biologists that Brailsford spoke to. “Late December is not the time to study quino checkerspots,” Harnon says. “They’re not up and flying around until March or April.”
Officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, reached by phone, also expressed ignorance of any studies being performed on Marron Valley Road. All of this governmental ignorance would make one think Brailsford and her neighbors’ worries were unfounded. But a December 2007 environmental impact statement (available at borderfencenepa.com) seems to validate the rumors. “[Customs and Border Protection] proposes to construct, operate, and maintain approximately 4.4 miles of tactical infrastructure. Proposed tactical infrastructure would consist of primary pedestrian fence [i.e., border fence], patrol roads, and access roads in two sections along the U.S./Mexico international border in San Diego County, California.”
Marron Valley Road is mentioned 11 times in the impact statement, mostly in connection with the flora and fauna damage the project would cause to the area along the road. The dreaded W-word is used. “In order for ingress/egress by trucks and heavy equipment, significant road widening would be required to safely accommodate truck traffic,” the statement says. Elsewhere, it states, “Certain points along Otay Mountain Truck Road and the spur to Puebla Tree construction access roads might require widening at various locations to allow for the safe travel of large construction vehicles. To the east…similar improvement might be required to Marron Valley Road.”
The gravelly surface of Marron Valley Road crunches underfoot as Brailsford walks to the concrete recycling yard. It’s 4:30 p.m.; the trucks have stopped for the day. About a mile south of her house, she comes to a gate on the left side of the road. A metal placard on the gate bears the name and phone number of Whillock Contracting, an El Cajon outfit. Walking around the gate and along a rough dirt road carved out of a hillside, she comes to the concrete dumping site, a wide area graded into a hillside looming over the south side of the valley. Two articulating skip loaders, their wheels nearly six feet tall, stand next to a pile of concrete covering an area about half the size of a football field and averaging seven or eight feet high. “Why did this have to be done here, where everybody in the valley can see it? I am all for recycling — it is fabulous — but maybe, even on this very road, I could find a better place to be recycling it than up here on the top where every single person in here can see it.”
Brailsford is also suspicious of the timing. “The same week those guys told me the road would be widened 60 feet we just happened to have a yard filled with road debris.”
Tory Whillock, who answers the phone at Whillock Contracting but refuses to give his work title there, says the concrete comes from houses burned in the recent Harris Fire. Asked if the concrete will be used for any widening projects on Marron Valley Road, Whillock laughs. “No, it will be ground up and used in rebuilding projects in the area. And I expect us to be done and out of there in five or six months.”
As Brailsford walks back to her house, the setting sun colors the hills shades of pink, and the cold January wind does the same to her cheeks. She smiles at the sight of Sedeka, her Korean jindo dog, chasing rabbits in the field alongside the road. It’s clear she loves this valley. “If this road were widened 60 feet,” she says, “it would ruin this area. It would absolutely ruin it.”