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Gregory Canyon combatant reflects on 28-year dump war
By Logan Jenkins | November 18, 2016

“It’s North County’s Hundred Years War,” I wrote in 2009. “Long after my earthly remains are buried, Gregory Canyon will still be working its way through a permitting process only Kafka could love.”

Saints be praised, I was wrong. I lived long enough to see the damned dump declared dead.

Thursday’s requiem for the landfill, delivered in the form of a press release, was greeted with a chorus of cheers in North County.

The most conspicuous winner, of course, is the Pala Band of Mission Indians, the tribe that bought the western side of Gregory Mountain and Gregory Canyon, a pastoral 700-acre portion of the 1,700-acre proposed landfill’s footprint.

Bottom line, a sacred Indian site, a cultural touchstone for several regional tribes, has been returned to the people who revere it.

As part of the purchase, the tribe promised not to oppose a large mixed-use development on the 1,000 acres near state Route 76, which might be an easier sell than, say, the more remote Lilac Hills Ranch that was rebuffed in the last election.

The future is always hard to predict, but this part of the bargain with GCL LLC does not appear terribly Faustian. (It’s anyone’s guess if a general plan amendment for a large development will win approval. Using the land as a mitigation bank or selling to a conservation group are options that may come into play.)

A cast of memorable characters has performed parts in the Gregory Canyon drama. The city of Oceanside joined the opposition, as did former Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. (California’s governors, on the other hand, have turned their backs following countywide votes of approval.) Everett DeLano, whom I’ve dubbed the NIMBY lawyer, has been the longtime counselor for RiverWatch, an environmental group that fought the project.

On the other side of the ledger, memory darts from the late Richard Chase — who for years was the face of the landfill, a charming defender of the indefensible — to his former wife, Nancy Chase, the unsinkable spokesperson who always expressed absolute confidence that Gregory Canyon would be built despite countless legal and financial obstacles.

But as I review the last quarter of a century, a period that roughly parallels my time as a columnist in North County, I keep returning to the last Trash Bag standing.

I called Ruth Harber Thursday at her home close by Gregory Canyon.

Harber had learned about 45 minutes before I rang that the specter that has bedeviled her for some 28 years has gone poof. (About 17 years ago, when we were walking Gregory Canyon, I’d told her the dump would never be built. She was pessimistic, even fatalistic. In her view, it was David vs. Goliath and there was nothing gigantic about her team. But the long odds only made her more determined.)

“So you’re a survivor,” I told her over the phone.

“In more ways than one,” she replied.

A Jewish girl during World War II, she hid from the Nazis in Belgium (an Anne Frank who made it). A married woman in her early 60s, she moved to her bucolic corner of Valley Center to grow avocados. Three years later, a woman approached her to sign a petition opposing a proposed dump and attend a meeting in Pauma Valley.

“Little did I know then that I was embarking on a fight against what came to be known as Gregory Canyon,” she told me.

Harber joined forces with five remarkable women who became known as the “Trash Bags,” a title adopted with good-humored pride. They were the most remarkable group of NIMBYs I’ve ever met, women with grit, Mensa-level smarts and time and energy to fight. Warriors with bulging manila folders, they were willing to attend innumerable meetings, delve deep into geology and topography.

“Those were the times when the phone and fax machines were our only weapons to stay informed,” she recalled. “There were no emails then. I used to write pamphlets and went regularly down to Pala to use their copy machines and also recruited my husband to make copies at work before he retired. I used my electric Smith-Corona to write. And, boy, did I write letters! Even to the Pope. Remember that? When the Catholic Diocese of San Diego ignored my pleas to join other religious organizations asking that they protect the ancient beliefs of the Pala Indians, I wrote to the Pope and got a response. Next thing: the Diocese complied. Those were the days.”

Harber’s scores of letters to the editor were gems of the genre. Concise, caustic, uncompromising.

The other Trash Bags are gone, either away or to the other side. Only Harber remains on the barricade.

“It’s been 28 years since this sordid story began,” she said. “I’m now 88 — still around — and ready to fight more battles had it been necessary.”

Fortunately, it’s no longer necessary. Harber can rest easy. The second war in her life is over.

Basking in the glow, she even finds it in her heart to throw a bone to an undeserving watchdog.

“You have been our champion even if we were called NIMBYs too many times to count,” she told me. “I was proud to be one. Who else would save our environment if there were no NIMBYs?”

I called DeLano to ask him what he’ll always remember about Harber.

He loved recalling a water-quality meeting about seven years ago in Escondido City Hall, a gathering in which high-school students had been hired to pretend that they supported the landfill. (Harber uncovered that embarrassing fact and fed the tasty morsel to me.)

At one point in the proceedings, Harber stood up and started questioning the panel of bureaucrats, holding their feet to the fire until they nearly cried.

When she’d finished, Harber’s husband stood up and said, “I’m her husband and you think this is something? I have to live with this!”

As the husband of a strong woman, I have to ask: Who wouldn’t give anything to live with something like that?

 

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