In Emergency Appeal, Julian Firefighters Ask State Court to Halt County Takeover

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Suspended Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber of Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District. Image via Julian Fire Plugs

By Ken Stone

Julian’s volunteer firefighters have filed an emergency appeal with a state appellate court in hopes of making an August 10 deadline to place a measure on the November ballot.

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Their aim is to have the 2,246 voters in the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District decide whether to repeal a fire board action to dissolve the district.

The legal action also asks the 4th District state Court of Appeal to block efforts to let Cal Fire (via the County Fire Authority) take over operations of the 81-square-mile fire district.

(Julian’s Nov. 6 ballot already will include a measure on whether to increase the fire district’s 34-year-old $50-a-parcel tax to $200.)

Julian Volunteer Firefighters Co. Association appeal of Judge Medel order. (PDF)
Downtown attorney Craig Sherman said “time is of the essence for an immediate stay order.”

He wants the Court of Appeal’s San Diego branch to halt an earlier order by San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel.

Citing Medel’s ruling that the dissolution issue was not a proper matter for referendum, county Registrar of Voters Michael Vu on June 27 reversed his decision to let a vote proceed.

(Of 313 petition signatures submitted, 255 were found valid — and it took only 134 to qualify the referendum for the November ballot, Vu said June 26, OK’ing a vote.)

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Sherman wrote in his appeal filed Tuesday: “The sole dispute and legal issue in the Superior Court Case is whether Resolution No. 2018-03, as a decision affecting the constituents and voters of the JCFPD, is a locally controlled legislative and policy decision (subject to referenda) or is it an administrative subject and action that is a matter of statewide concern (not local control).”

In his petition for writ of mandate and emergency stay order, Sherman said case law supports his argument that courts should allow items to appear on the ballot, and let the voters decide “prior to adjudging and legal efficacy of the matter — which can be maintained and decided later.”

A San Diego County spokeswoman said Wednesday: “This is a pending legal matter. The Fire Authority has no comment.”

Meanwhile, the executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission has issued a 158-page report on the Julian fire board’s application for a county takeover.

In a report ahead of an Aug. 6 public hearing, Keene Simonds recommends the LAFCO board approve the county’s last rural volunteer fire department becoming part of County Service Area 135.

“This conclusion acknowledges there is opposition to the reorganization in the community,” Simonds wrote. “The extent of the opposition is not known, however, and can be appropriately vetted during protest proceedings.”

The report includes a detailed letter from Julian’s Leslie Crouch, which expressed little confidence in Cal Fire’s ability to find its way around Julian, staff the area properly or respond fast enough.

San Diego LAFCO chief Keene Simonds’ report to board on Julian dissolution application. (PDF)
“On a purely subjective and emotional level,” Crouch added, “the community feels safe and secure under the protection of JCFPD.”

She called the 40 volunteer firefighters well-trained and experienced family, friends and neighbors.

“We fear for the safety of our property and lives under an agency that has its offices and officers” 60 miles away in San Diego or 525 miles away in Sacramento, she said.

The Simonds report also includes a footnote saying that if the county takes over the 2-year-old Julian fire station on state Route 79, it won’t revert to Indian ownership as some contend.

“An apparent disagreement exists involving the ownership status of the land tied to Station No. 56 and whether it would transfer to CSA No. 135 as part of an approved joint‐reorganization approval,” the LAFCO report said.

Based on publicized statements, it noted, the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy believes an existing deed clause transfers the land to the organization should it no longer be used by Julian‐Cuyamaca FPD as a fire station.

But the footnote said attempts by LAFCO staff to meet with the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy to discuss the matter “have not generated a response.”

In late May, John “Eagle Spear” Elliott of the conservancy told a county supervisors hearing that late Julian resident Frances Mosler had deeded 6.4 acres of land to the Native American Land Conservancy — acreage later transferred to the Kumeyaay group.

Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District map. (PDF)
“By dissolving itself as a district, the property where the fire station was eventually constructed automatically reverts to KDLC for its use consistent with the underlying deed,” Elliott said, adding that the conservancy hadn’t been approached by the county, LAFCO or the district regarding deed issues.

“I strongly suggest that the parties meet to discuss the county’s future interest, if any, in the property where the former fire district station resides,” he said.

But the Simonds LAFCO report said county counsel has reviewed the matter and “believes the land will transfer to [the county service area] as successor agency.”

Simonds said Wednesday that if the commission approves the reorganization Aug. 6, a protest hearing is tentatively set for 10 a.m. Sept. 18 at the County Operations Center at 5520 Overland Ave. in San Diego.

“All landowners and registered voters within [the fire district] would receive the (hearing) notice through the mail,” he said via email. “Importantly, in order for a landowner or registered voter to submit a valid protest, it must be dated on or after the notice has been issued and filed with LAFCO before the conclusion of the hearing.”

Further, Simonds said if LAFCO approves the Julian dissolution, “the community will get to directly participate in the final decision-making.”

If a 50 percent plus one majority of registered voters protest the dissolution, he said, “the proceedings terminate.”

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