I appreciate the walkable convenience of one-stop shopping at the post office, food markets, bank, pharmacy and library, all situated in and around Strawberry Plaza.
On the other hand, viewed from surrounding mountain ridges, this asphalt patch is one of the most prominent scars on the forest landscape, out of keeping with the overall character of Idyllwild. How did this come about?
It was not a routine birth. During the first week of February 1975, out-of-town loggers moved in unannounced and began clear-cutting the gentle slope behind the Gastrognome and bank.
The Izaak Walton League, led by Ernie Maxwell, filed a futile protest against developer Mary Nelson’s subdivision of the land without an environmental impact study. Their concern was that increased storm runoff could endanger creekside homes downstream and foul wildlife habitat along Strawberry Creek.
Maxwell argued that while Nelson was a decent person, she, like all developers, needed monitoring. Though residing off the Hill, she was well-known in Idyllwild. A Coachella Valley Arabian horse fancier, she’d spent summers in Fern Valley during the 1950s. After prominent Realtor Rollin Humber died in 1955, she bought the Humber home on Jameson Drive. This acquaintance led by 1958 to a partnership with Margaret Humber in Fern Valley Realty. After going independent for a few years, she moved away in 1966.
In the mid-1970s, Nelson had quietly gained county approval for a plot plan and tree-removal permit for a three-lot commercial subdivision on properly zoned land.
During a hearing on the protest, she assured the Planning Commission she had no plan to develop a fourth parcel down along the creek. But immediately following local elections in November, Nelson filed a plot plan to build a 50-unit motel on that creekside lot. Over the next weekend, fresh markings appeared on creekside trees, which set phone lines humming.
Monday morning, 100 locals rallied downtown, then marched to parcel #4 carrying signs protesting the cutting of more trees. This was no countercultural rabble; its leader, Truman Smith, would soon be elected Chamber of Commerce president.
The point of the rally was less to stop immediate development than to build support for tighter regulation. At a public hearing in January 1976, the group presented County Supervisor Clayton Record a petition with 500 signatures calling for an ordinance to regulate removal of nonhazardous trees on lots of 3 acre or less.
By then, as there was no legal basis to prevent removal of more than half the 400 trees on the lower parcel, loggers had moved in again, even though Nelson had yet to break ground for the shopping center on the bench above. Ultimately, given notice that her massive earth-moving plan would place 16 motel units and all the parking within the 100-year flood plain, Nelson backed down and left the terrain in its natural state.
After much wrangling, the proposed ordinance was enacted at the end of 1976. Construction on the shopping plaza dragged on throughout 1977, and it wasn’t until February 1978 that Idyllwild Pharmacy opened, followed at summer’s end by the Country Market (now Fairway).
The controversial motel never was built. Instead, what was once a forested amphitheater, home to outdoor church services, concerts and even a play (“Verna of the Pine Trees”) written and staged by Garnet Holme, originator of the Ramona Pageant, still sits largely denuded, finally to be salvaged as a parking lot for the Idyllwild Community Center.
Bob Smith is a researcher and archivist with the Idyllwild Area Historical Society. He welcomes comments, questions, corrections and suggested topics for this column at [email protected]