A look back at Lemon Grove 37 years ago when gaining cityhood was like giving birth to a camel--bumpy, awkward, full of grit and the rest of the herd spits on you. We didn't have St. Patrick to drive the snakes out of Lemon Grove, but the town was used to going it alone--and it had a dream.
We Wuz Robbed: Lemon Grovians yearned to become a Bicentennial City and labored to get on the June 8, 1976 ballot. Polling showed a win was assured. That meant we'd officially become a city on July 4, 1976 on the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Wow.
So who robbed us? Yup, pals, it was La Mesa, which wanted to annex 1.17 square miles of the unincorporated Vista La Mesa neighborhood--an area designated to become part of the new City of Lemon Grove.
La Mesa and the county allegedly had a "gentleman's agreement" that La Mesa would claim VLM because, according to La Mesa's Mayor Paul Fordem, "Route 94 is a natural boundary line."
But Mike Gotch, assistant director of LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission), said LAFCO responded to "the will of the people" and voted to give Lemon Grove the unincorporated acreage north of 94 because it was in the new Lemon Grove Fire Protection District.
How come we were a new fire district? Because the county bailed. It used to provide fire protection through the U.S. Forestry Service, but didn't want the cost or responsibility any longer.
Under state law, it was illegal to have an unincorporated "island of land" between two incorporated cities, much less without fire protection. The island--in this case, VLM--had to belong either to La Mesa or soon-to-be-incorporated Lemon Grove. La Mesa hung tough and voted in February and March to prevent our cityhood ballot initiative until it got control of VLM.
Gotch protested La Mesa's my-way-or-the-highway attitude since LAFCO had followed the people's bidding: They wanted to stay in Lemon Grove and vice versa. Worse, noted Gotch, La Mesa thwarted the election bid at the eleventh hour and the county failed to take on the dispute at its February meeting when the issue might have been resolved in time for the June ballot.
Stay with us, dear readers, as we plow through the weeds:
Half a Million Bucks: Thanks to the above skulduggery, Lemon Grove lost $500,000 in sales, liquor, gas and other locally generated taxes that, under state law, a new city could collect for its first fiscal year and not give back to the state. So who got the dough? Why, the county. Does this pass the smell test?
Supervisor Dick Brown, who had endorsed cityhood for Lemon Grove, admitted the supervisors had dropped the ball in not defending the town after the LAFCO decision--and Brown certainly wasn't on his toes. Of course, he was a lame duck supervisor not running for re-election.
As the Review noted, "Perhaps supervisors don't think an area with 23,500 is that important."
One Good Guy: La Mesa City Councilman George Bailey was the only one of five to vote against his city's move to keep Lemon Grove off the June 8 ballot. Bailey warned that La Mesa's excessive demands for land would net them little or nothing.
La Mesa wanted not only VLM, but Rolando Knolls, an unincorporated area coveted by San Diego. And there was the American Homes-Blossom Lane-Highlands area of Spring Valley up for grabs.
"You'll lose everything," said Bailey.
And that's what happened, sort of. VLM went to La Mesa, but stayed in the Lemon Grove School District. Blossom Lane stayed in Lemon Grove. American Homes and Highlands stayed in Spring Valley. Rolando Knolls stayed in San Diego.
As Bailey predicted, La Mesa got barely a square mile and plenty of bad blood that lingered for years (even now, depending on whom you talk to). But Bailey later ran for supervisor and won. Lemon Grove went for him two to one.
Tennis Tantrums: In the 1970s they couldn't drive the snakes out of the nation's tennis courts either. It was the Age of the Screamer when champs like Jimmy Connors, Ilie "Nasty" Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitas and Roscoe Tanner cursed, argued, yelled and threw their rackets at the referee.
Concerned that impressionable youth would find glamor in such shenanigans, Helix High School coach Russ Walker fined his kids $1 for every four-letter word or moment of unacceptable behavior. But Mt. Miguel High School coach Ed Marikle said it depends on what coaches will let players get away with.
Grossmont High School Foothiller coach Jack Mosher admitted he let his players get away with anything mainly because they'd won for the last 17 seasons of league play and were looking to capture the 18th season.
Luv Ya: But Lemon Grove moppets sought their heroes on the tube. Television stars of the day like Sonny and Cher, Elizabeth Montgomery in "Bewitched" and Million Dollar Man Lee Majors won the hearts of our young in class votes. They even drew pictures of their faves (see photos).
But there were also votes for Mark Twain (whoa!), Amelia Earhart, Santa Claus, the school principal, baseball players and automobile racers.
Such was life in the Big Lemon on St. Patrick's Day, 1976 when grownups sought the city of their dreams and kiddies sang "I Got You Babe."