Though the cards have been dealt and Barona casino seemingly holds the winning hand in its 16-month quest for a liquor license, a group of Lakeside residents are standing firm in their fight against adding booze to the noise, litter and perilous traffic they say has decimated the tranquility of their rural existence.
Former San Diego Zoo Ambassador Joan Embery has lived in Lakeside for 26 years with her husband, Duane Pillsbury.
"I'm getting killed out here," said Embery. "The Indians have changed my life.... We have over 40 water trucks at night hauling water, because Barona doesn't have any water to run their hotel and their golf course.... That goes on all night long."
Mike Tilley, a civil engineer with the Port of San Diego, is also protesting the license. He said casino patrons have adopted a BYOB policy in lieu of a license. "When the CHP does their limited checks [near the casino] they get about nine or 10 people in a pop.... When they first started doing that, people would throw full bottles of beer and liquor on the road-we even found a crack pipe out there."
Though the Sheriff's Department removed its longstanding opposition to Barona's license in November-a move many viewed as the Barona Tribal Gaming Authority's ace card-on Jan. 12, the application landed back in the San Diego office of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) for further investigation.
Joe Cruz, a deputy division chief with the ABC's Cerritos office, told CityBeat a "substantial amount" of protest letters raising "valid concerns" halted the application from its upward trajectory toward approval in Sacramento.
Steve Ernst, head of the ABC's San Diego office, said he would be meeting with Barona officials this week to investigate further. "It's pretty involved," he said. "I can't go into any details, but our attorneys reviewed it and they wanted us to add some more information."
Cruz said the majority of the protest letters were related to the traffic congestion along Wildcat Canyon Road, a meandering, two-lane highway connecting Lakeside and Ramona that serves as the only access to the casino. Even given Barona's dry status, California Highway Patrol reports show 51 collisions along Wildcat last year, resulting in 35 injuries and four fatalities-making it one of the most dangerous roads in the county. By comparison, there were only 11 collisions and one fatality along Willow Road, which leads from Interstate 8 to Viejas casino, where liquor flows freely on the casino floor.
In late November, Baronans were about as beamish as the day voters passed Proposition 1A, which in 2000 gave California Indian tribes carte blanche to open Vegas-style casinos. In a Nov. 25 letter to Ernst, the Sheriff's Department said it had reversed its opposition to Barona obtaining a liquor license. In turn, Ernst signed his approval to the application and sent it up the ABC chain of command, where it was slated for administrative hearing.
Should ABC's attorneys dismiss concerns raised in the opponents' letters, a protest hearing will still be held in San Diego to consider opposition to the license.
David Landry of the Lakeside Planning Group, which is opposing the license, said he still considers law enforcement's tacit approval a fait accompli for the Barona Band, and the impending protest hearing a "bozo attempt to palliate the nerves" of residents.
Out of nine criteria the county Board of Supervisors established for Barona to meet in order for them to remove its opposition to the license-including alcohol-service training for staff and a designated-driver program-only the mitigation of traffic problems in the area has not yet been met.
"The county has not changed its position in opposition to the Barona liquor license because all the criteria have not been met," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Though the San Diego County Department of Public Works is slated to proceed with a $5 million project to add a one-mile passing lane to Wildcat Canyon Road, Jacob said that would not suffice to get a green light from the county.
"It in no way mitigates the impact of the traffic produced by the casino," she said. "Until the road situation can be made safer-and it's got to be more than just the passing lane-to add alcohol to the mix is very, very wrong."
On a Sunday afternoon at Matt La Chappa Park-named in honor of the son of Barona Tribal Chief Clifford La Chappa-parents of Lakeside little leaguers cheered on their brood, while voicing concerns about Barona's license and the impending Wildcat expansion.
Three-year Lakeside resident Doug Skinner said he feels the most pressing need is for the addition of a traffic light at the end of Wildcat Canyon Road, just one block from the ballpark. "You can't get people out of the canyon fast enough, so the traffic backs up behind that stop sign for miles," said Skinner. "A passing lane might be nice for people that are going up the canyon and stuck behind the tour busses, but you're going to have the main problem-getting out of the canyon."
Lifetime Lakeside resident Richard Baum said the Wildcat traffic problem is the just the latest in a series of problems that began with the expansion of Highway 67.
"I've gone from seeing where a child could walk down the street, nice and safe and go to the Lakeside Theatre and watch a movie on a Saturday afternoon, to where I can't even let my kids walk to school from our house."
One option to the traffic quandary would be to bring Scripps Poway Parkway straight through to the casino from Highway 67. However, with an estimated price tag of $50 million and environmental issues to contend with-including San Diego's Multiple Species Conservation Program-that route seems largely unfeasible.
"It's one of those things that isn't real easy to solve," said Duane Pillsbury. "They would be required to set it up to where the animals could get back and forth across the road."
Other solutions, such as widening Wildcat Canyon Road to two lanes in both directions, have been deemed environmentally insurmountable by the county.
"There's a lot of protected species along Wildcat Canyon Road, so that's almost something that will never happen," said Tilley.
Though Barona's original application, filed Sept. 18, 2002, requested alcohol service in only four different areas of the casino, a VIP gaming room on the lower level of the casino was added to the list just two months ago.
Viejas, Rincon and Pechanga casinos all offer cocktail service throughout their facilities. Sycuan was denied a license several years ago. Ernst said, if granted, Barona's license would be the "most restrictive" in the county.
Barona's attorney, Art Bunce, said those who patronize the high-roller room, which includes a limited number of slots and tables, will be required to "arrive and leave by limousine.... They aren't driving at all," he said.
However, Captain Glenn Revell of the Sheriff's Department's Santee substation, one of two law enforcement officials who met with Barona General Manager Karol Schoen before recommending to Sheriff Bill Kolender that the department remove its opposition to the license, said he wasn't certain others would be ostracized from the VIP lounge.
"It's pretty clear that most people who will take advantage of that option will arrive and depart by a professionally driven limo-but not necessarily everyone," said Revell. "We did not get into a conversation about whether or not if... I show up in my 1973 beater Honda, they won't let me in the door because I'm your friend."
"You mean to tell me a high-rollin' gambler isn't going to be able to get a drink?" asked Embery. "Who's going to oversee that?"
Revell said alcohol is already permitted in the special-events center on a BYOB basis, as long as no sales are involved. He said he feels a license would help monitor the situation.
"As long as we're giving it away to adults, you and I could literally carry it out there in five gallon jugs and give it away without our servers having any training, without the facility having any methodology with which to intervene," said Revell. "I can get some control by recommending that we at least consider a license here, because... [ABC] does have some say over whether or not they continue to serve."
The Sheriff's department ultimately removed its opposition to the license after Revell and CHP Capt. Brian Hagler met with Barona General Manager Carol Schein. Though in a letter to ABC Licensing Representative Tawnie Kelpin, Revell previously said he felt granting the license would be "ill advised at best," acting on authority from Sheriff Kolender, Revell removed the department's opposition to the license.
Barona attorney Bunce said he felt that perhaps Revell and Hagler changed their position due to an initial misunderstanding that alcohol would be served on the casino floor.
"Art's very gracious to indicate it may have been our misunderstanding," said Revell, "but the reality is, we understood clearly what they were recommending to be self-imposed restrictions and we held fast until those restrictions were written into the license. If you self-impose the restrictions, that gives you the latitude to un-self-impose those at a moment's notice."
As to his rational for removing his opposition to the license, Hagler noted that the number of accidents on Wildcat Canyon Road had steadily declined for the past three years. As to why that number had dropped, Hagler hedged: "It's not something I'm going to hang my hat on. Maybe it was because there was a lack of rain and the roads weren't as slippery.... Maybe people are getting used to the roadway."
When notified of the sudden change of heart at Sheriff's Department, most opponents of the license had a similar response.
"I was surprised, disappointed, dismayed and dumfounded," said David Landry. "All the years that I've lived up here there has always been opposition to there being liquor sold on the reservation by the Sheriff's Department."
One item being whispered through the tight-knit East County community is the potential for a conflict of interest arising from the fact that Sheriff Kolender's sister, Iris Meyric, works in public relations at Barona.
"I kind of resent that," said Kolender, responding to the implication that his sister's position might have influenced his department's recent reversal. "She has nothing to do with anything.... She knows our feeling. She was not happy when we opposed it and that's the way it goes."
Though currently employed as a director of player development, Meyrick is the casino's former director of community relations.
She said she received no prompting or incentive to incite a change of heart in the Sheriff's Department from her employer. "Oh God, no; absolutely not.... Would it have taken two years? He's not that type of person and neither am I.... I don't even understand why it would look bad."
Additional concerns arising from opponents include the issue of tribal sovereignty and the ABC's purported light-touch when it comes to enforcement at casinos.
Detective Dan Pearce, who works closely with the Viejas tribe, said he has seen bars shut down for next to nothing, while the ABC seems not to disregard frequent reports of public drunkenness at Viejas.
"It may be different under Schwarzenegger, but the Indian casinos are a very strong political lobby in California," Pearce noted. "Davis was very pro-Indian casino. The ABC is a state agency which requires Davis approving their budget. Are you going to step on the hands of the friends of the boss? From what I've seen, it's just that nobody wants to take the Indians on.... We're getting one to two drunk-in-public arrests a month out at Viejas.... These are arrests that their security have made because the people have gotten so out of control that they've had to arrest them and then they call us to take and do all the paperwork. I've personally seen other bars closed down for much less than that...."I can't speak for ABC, I don't know what their rationale is," said Pearce. "About once every two months I send them down copies of all the drunk-in-public arrests from Viejas because I'm supposed to. What they do with it is up to them."