LAFCO Votes to End Julian Volunteer Fire Dept., Invites Town to Save It

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Devi Ketelsen, 7, reads statement to LAFCO board while being held by mother Jamie. Photo by Ken Stone

By Ken Stone

The only way to save Julian’s last-in-the-county volunteer fire department is to order it destroyed, LAFCO board members declared Monday.

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By a 7-0 vote, the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission accepted staff advice to dissolve the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District.

But board members challenged the community to defend it via an Oct. 16 “protest hearing” and petition process.

“Who knows what the right time is to do this?” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “I do know this: It needs to go to a vote of the people. And the only way we get there is by approving the staff recommendation. .. and then there will be the protest hearing. And then voices will be heard.”

Agenda packet for LAFCO’s Sept. 10, 2018, hearing on Julian fire district dissolution. (PDF)
A three-hour public hearing in a mildly muggy Board of Supervisors chambers downtown heard from more than two dozen people, including three members of the Julian fire board who backed a county takeover of fire services via its contract with Cal Fire.

But nearly half of the 40 Julian-area residents (some wearing “JCFPD Backcountry Strong” T-shirts) signed speaker slips to make sometimes emotional 3-minute appeals to preserve the volunteer force.

They asked questions. They waved documents. They shared stories of dismal outcomes of Cal Fire takeovers elsewhere in the state.

They disputed accounts of Julian financial distress made earlier by Tony Mecham, County Fire Authority and San Diego area Cal Fire chief, who said: “The simple fact is … (the district) has been subsidized by the county since 2007.”

Mecham was mocked for his promise that “we will definitely reduce response times.”

A 7-year-old home-schooled girl from Ranchita — facing similar backcountry fire issues — read from a handwritten statement.

“Hi, my name is Devi,” said the daughter of Nick and Jamie Ketelsen, “and I live in Ranchita right now, but I used to live in Julian. I’m speaking because my station is not staffed all the time. My grandma and grandpa live in Ranchita, and they’re old.

“What if something happens? They have a farm. They have animals. If something happened to … harm them, it would be the worst day of my life. Please help us.”

Members of the board sought to allay concerns, saying they were sad to see the North County tourist mecca divided.

Jacob said Measure A on the November ballot would include a “cleanup” provision to amend the county charter and add the County Fire Authority.

Said Mecham: “We can’t stress enough [that] we want to keep the volunteer firefighters” — who could work three shifts a week if they meet “minimum legal standards.”

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Back of T-shirt shows logo that also appears on a Facebook page. Photo by Ken Stonemore
LAFCO member Ed Sprague said he was "little bit heartbroken" about community divisions over dissolution. Photo by Ken Stonemore
County Supervisor and LAFCO member Dianne Jacob said: "I've heard from a lot of property owners that don't live in Julian and have grave concerns about not having a sustainable fire and emergency services available to them." Photo by Ken Stonemore
County Supervisor and LAFCO member Bill Horn said "we're better off with a county operation that's coordinated." Photo by Ken Stonemore
Julian fire board candidate Evelina "Eva" Hatch displayed a Facebook post she said indicated a Cal Fire staffer's dismissive attitude. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Attorney Ted Griswold reminded LAFCO that the land under Fire Station 56 reverts to Indian ownership if the district ends. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Jamie Ketelsen kisses daughter Devi while listening to her husband, Nick, of Ranchita. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Nick Ketelsen of Ranchita urged LAFCO to resolve staffing issues with the Ranchita fire station "before you take on new issues" involving Cal Fire. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Lorie Foss of Julian, who lost a home to wildfire, argued that both Cal Fire and the volunteer force are needed. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Julian volunteer firefighter Mike Hatch disputed Cal Fire stats with his own. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Julian fire board members Jack Shelver and Aida Tucker (watching monitor) observed the hearing. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Local Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham tells LAFCO board that dissolution would also mean abandoning Lake Cuyamaca fire station, which he called "not habitable." Photo by Ken Stonemore
Julian fire board member Aida Tucker fire district dissolution a win-win for community. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Julian fire board president Jack Shelver said insurance rates would go down if Cal Fire took over fire services. Photo by Ken Stonemore
LAFCO Executive Officer Keene Simonds said the dissolution proposal "makes sense under LAFCO law" but "all proposals have some hard edges." Photo by Ken Stonemore
San Diego Councilwoman and LAFCO member Lorie Zapf fans herself on the warm dais. Photo by Ken Stonemore
El Cajon mayor and LAFCO member Bill Wells listened to Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District debate. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Before LAFCO hearing, Cal Fire San Diego Chief Tony Mecham (center) monitored his phone. Photo by Ken Stonemore
JCFPD supporters kept their own counsel in the Board of Supervisors chambers, across hall from normal LAFCO hearing room. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Portrait of President Trump looks down on the LAFCO board and staff. Photo by Ken Stonemore
Evelina "Eva" Hatch used a tripod to mount iPad Mini camera to record LAFCO hearing. Photo by Ken Stonemore

Julian fire board member Kristin Starlin, on “temporary permanent disability” as a volunteer firefighter, told how she came to support dissolution after voting earlier to keep the agency independent.

She said she “stepped away from my emotions” to embrace a fiduciary responsibility triggered by three words of advice from retired Julian Fire Chief Rick Marinelli: “Life and property.”

“I felt that loss of life and property would be on my shoulders,” Starlin said. “I had to make it right by the community. I had no regret” by voting in April to seek dissolution.

Fire board President Jack Shelver said current financial demands, fueled by state requirements, “far exceed” the district’s budget, which is supported by a 1984-passed $50 annual parcel fee for Julian residents and landowners.

He said residents would pay less for fire insurance if the San Diego County Fire Authority and Cal Fire took over permanently. (A Cal Fire chief heads the department now.)

Julian fire board member Aida Tucker called it “morally wrong to present facts” that the district can survive by itself, slamming volunteer firefighters “seeking to win at all costs.”

LAFCO vice chair Ed Sprague, an Olivenhain Municipal Water District director, said he was a “little bit heartbroken” about the community split.

“I’ve had personal friends on both sides of the issue,” he said before his vote a little after noon.

But he noted “clarifying facts” that backcountry residents get fewer services and need career professionals instead of “professional volunteers” to provide fire services.

The district’s “executive staff,” he added, “has done a piss-poor job of managing the outcomes and responsibilities” and facilities and equipment maintenance.

But Patricia Landis, a candidate for one of two open seats on the fire board this November, vowed to become part of a four-member majority that would seek to rescind the dissolution application.

“We’re a volunteer community. Period,” said Landis, who said she founded the nonprofit Julian Fire Plugs, which raises money for the district.

She said a $200 annual parcel fee on Julian’s November ballot would make the district financially sustainable, and preserve local control instead of from “50 or 600 miles away.”

Another pro-JCFPD candidate for the board — 20-year-old Evelina “Eva” Hatch — spoke last during public comments (while videotaping the meeting for later posting on Facebook).

“I know the emergency services issue inside out,” Hatch declared, saying “future generations have the most at stake.”

One issue the county hasn’t resolved is a potential Indian claim on the land beneath the new Fire Station 56 on state Route 79.

Two speakers, including a veteran attorney for the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy, said they were neutral on dissolution but reminded the board 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.

Ted Griswold, the conservancy lawyer, said the land was intended for a JCFPD fire station and ending the district would cause the property to revert to the Mosler trust.

Jacob later asked LAFCO attorney Holly Whatley if protecting the fire station land was a condition of dissolution.

“No,” Whatley replied, but the “county is willing to continue to discuss it.”

The Indian land issue was a nonissue for Mike Hatch, a Julian volunteer firefighter.

Hatch — a party to a lawsuit against the fire district, county and others — said the county would resolve the land dispute with the Indians.

“The native tribes have a lot at stake in their casinos and stuff,” Hatch said after the meeting. “They have to deal with the county on a regular basis. They work with the county a lot. Their fire departments work with the county, too.”

Even though the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy isn’t the same as the tribes running casinos, “it’s pretty much the same people,” he said. “I know a few of them.”

Hatch said the Indians would “negotiate hard” but Cal Fire would ultimately get the fire station land. “That’s more than likely.”

He also predicted that JCFPD defenders would collect the needed 25 percent of Julian-Cuyamaca registered voters to force a vote on dissolution.

“We’ve already gotten 25 percent three times,” Hatch said. “Last time we did it in two weeks — 300 and something (signatures). That was over 25 percent by a long shot.”

But he said gathering 50 percent — to halt dissolution — is “a hard number to crack. But I think it’s doable.”

Hatch wasn’t surprised by the 7-0 vote to disband — saying: “I’ve been to this rodeo before.”

On Facebook, board candidate Landis said: “LAFCO did as expected and now it is our turn. Every registered voter will receive a Protest Petition. Sign and return it asap. This is the process that will allow Julian-Cuyamaca residents to vote. This is our only chance at democracy.”

Sprague and Jacob were joined in the LAFCO vote by North County Supervisor Bill Horn, Chairwoman Jo MacKenzie of the Vista Irrigation District, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and public member Andrew Vanderlaan.

San Diego Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who was late to the meeting, left early and didn’t vote. A LAFCO staffer said she had some other commitment.

In explaining her vote, East County Supervisor Jacob said she’s always been a “big advocate of local control” (sparking snickers in the audience).

But she said she didn’t know “where the entire community is on this issue — whether the community supports this recommendation that’s before us or not.”

Therefore: “I think the best thing for us to do today … is to move forward. … Cut through the emotion. Stick to the facts and have a robust .. debate over the issue, hopefully a kindly debate and not get personal as I have experienced.”

Insisting that “we tell Cal Fire what to do — they don’t tell us what to do,” Jacob said the issue wasn’t about “jurisdictional lines, patches on the sleeve.”

It’s about “when that 911 call comes in — that they get the fastest response people.”

Keene Simonds, LAFCO executive officer, put it simply: “If the majority of the community doesn’t want the reorganization to occur, it won’t occur.”

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