Editor’s note: Each year, the Town Crier reviews the top 10 news items on the Hill. These stories were the favorites of TC readers who attend the weekly news meetings. This week, the TC reviews five of these stories and will finish the rest the following week.

Rite Aid Bear makes Idyllwild his domicile

By Marshall Smith

Staff Reporter

After we posed the question: “When was the last time bears were seen in residential aresa on the Hill” on last week’s front cover, a bear visited the Hill. There were several reported sitings, including the Tiso residence in Mountain Center last week. On Friday, he or she visited some Fern Valley residents and ambled up to Humber Park. “The bear walked right up to our house and hung out on our lawn at least three times over about four days,” wrote Allan Tiso. “It ate our chickens, chewed our dogs’ bones and played with the dinosaur toys.”
Photo by Benjamin Tiso

One of the major stories of 2017 was the arrival of the Rite Aid black bear in the San Jacinto Mountains communities in May. Named the Rite Aid bear because of a sighting in the Rite Aid parking lot in Banning immediately prior to his trek up the mountain, the bear arrived in Idyllwild causing considerable consternation among residents, especially those recently arrived with possibly less exposure to the area’s wild animal population.

What was remarkable about the bear’s arrival was the rarity of recent sightings of black bears in the San Jacinto Mountain range. Black bears were once plentiful on this mountain. But construction of Interstate 10 reduced migratory possibilities between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains. Yet bridges over I-10 and underpasses still offer possible access routes to the San Jacinto range to bears bent on finding new areas to in which to forage.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Kevin Brennan noted, “They [black bears] live in the San Bernardino Mountains, north of I-10.” Brennan believes the Rite Aid bear to be a young male, age 3 to 5. At roughly the same time as the Rite Aid bear was sighted in Banning, a female was sighted in Indio. The Rite Aid male made his way to Idyllwild on his own. The female black bear was relocated to the Santa Rosa wildland habitat between Garner Valley and Pinyon. Her proximity to both I-10 and a major population center posed a risk for motorists and for residents, necessitating her relocation to an area where she could roam and forage.

Said Brennan of the bears, “Their primary food is grass, which cures at this time of year [late spring] so they’re foraging. Also, the young are dispersing, traveling long distances with ranges of up to 186 miles.” 

Spurred on by questions from concerned residents, Brennan conducted a “bear talk” at the Idyllwild Library on July 27 to a standing-room-only audience. Brennan’s message to attendees was brief — secure garbage, clean barbecue grills and leave no food sources including bird feeders within reach of a bear. Brennan said bears’ sense of smell is especially keen and they will remain in areas where they don’t have to work to secure food.

Brennan noted that San Bernardino County, where there are many black bears, has an ordinance prohibiting leaving unsecured food sources outdoors. “There is no such law in Riverside County,” he said. An audience member asked if bears can climb fences. “They can pull a car door apart and even uproot a chainlink fence,” he said. He affirmed they could climb fences. “They are very powerful.”

He also stressed it is the behavior of humans, creating food attraction by careless outdoor storage of garbage, that will keep a bear in an area. He said bears remember where food is available and return to find it. Brennan also noted black bears are not normally aggressive, pointing out that a dog can tree a black bear. He said bears are intelligent and inventive with regard to accessing food. When humans leave food sources unsecured, bears begin to identify humans as providing food sources, thereby increasing the probability of negative encounters with bears. During those encounters, bears would not be easily deterred from getting the food by intervening humans.

“Some people just see a bear and believe it’s a public threat,” said Brennan. “It’s not. And a bear’s depredation of a car, house, pet or agriculture is not a public safety threat. For us to intervene and kill a bear, it must be an imminent threat to public safety, to human life — a threat at that time and in that moment.”

The numerous local sightings of the Rite Aid bear in Fern Valley, near the Nature Center and Humber Park, and in Garner Valley have diminished as have sightings of two bears near the Palm Springs Mountaintop Station. Brennan indicated the bears may have moved on to forage in other areas for acorns but could return.

A U.S. Forest Service Alaska website gives a good account of how to coexist with bears: “Bears are curious, intelligent and potentially dangerous animals, but undue fear of bears can endanger both bears and people. Respecting bears and learning proper behavior in an encounter will help. Avoid surprising bears at close distance. Look for signs of bears in an area, and make plenty of noise. Avoid crowding bears. Respect their personal space. And most importantly, avoid attracting bears through improper handling of food or garbage.”

Contacted on Dec. 26, Brennan confirmed the bears have not been sighted recently. Most bears “den up” (seek a den within which to pass the winter) but this year, with warmer-than-normal temperatures, it’s possible the bears are still moving and are out of the area. “We don’t know if they’re still in the San Jacintos,” said Brennan. “What we do know is that they are not hanging around people and that’s a good thing. At this point, no news is good news.”

It was a first, and the July 4th laser show lit up Tahquitz Rock. From a perfect vantage point, the images were spectacular. Photo by John Drake

Laser show on Tahquitz draws positive and negative reviews

By Marshall Smith

Staff Reporter

Another story that drew considerable attention from readers was the laser show on Tahquitz Rock on July 4.

Because his late wife Pamela had loved fireworks, Idyllwild resident Charles “Chic” Fojtik decided to memorialize her with a laser show on the face of Tahquitz (or Lily) Rock. With the support of former Art Alliance President Gary Kuscher, Fojtik arranged with a Los Angeles-based company, Laserium Daystar, to shine a July 4 patriotically themed laser light show on the face of an Idyllwild landmark, famous world wide as a climbing site, and sacred to Mountain Cahuilla Native Americans.

The Fojtik’s had first seen a laser show in Egypt, when one was projected on the Great Pyramid of Giza. “We wondered why the same approach could not be done here,” said Fojtik.

Financed by Fojtik, the show took place on the evening of July 4 and drew viewers from off the Hill, and comments from residents both positive and negative.

Some loved the flash and sparkle of the laser show as a modern-day marvel and substitute for fireworks that are prohibited on the mountain. Some thought the images were not well thought-out, were random, and did not seem to be part of a cohesive script either about Idyllwild or the Fourth of July.

Some felt the show was not in keeping with Idyllwild’s homespun and low-key small-town celebrations such as the locally produced Fourth of July Parade and Christmas Tree Lighting — simple celebrations that could have been held in any small American town 100 years ago.

For some, the laser show was a welcome precursor to even larger and more ambitious future laser shows — grand-scale productions that would arguably be good for local commerce and attracting tourists.

For others, the incessant scurrying of visitors in cars trying to find the perfect vantage point to view the show was reminiscent of the discourteous snow-play visitors from the last two winters.

The biggest pushback came from those supportive of local Native American tribes’ claim that Tahquitz, part of their ancestral grounds, is a sacred site and one not to be disturbed and disrespected with electronic images.

According to Cahuilla elder Kim Marcus, Tahquitz is and has always been a source of great power and energy, precariously balanced between good and evil. “Tahquitz was a great shaman and helped the Cahuilla but he misused his powers,” recounted Marcus. “There is great power in the rock and it has been held in balance for many years. For us it is a sacred site. To disrespect that power and our traditions will cause a disruption in the balance of power [in the rock] and there will be consequences.”

Gerald Clarke, Cahuilla tribal member, former head of the Visual Arts Department at Idyllwild Arts Academy and current teacher of Native American history at UC Riverside, noted, “There’s a whole tribal life that continues in Idyllwild but it goes unseen. We come to gather our acorns and visit our ancestral grounds.”

He thought, as did Marcus, that the consultative process from Fojtik and Kuscher could have started sooner and been more thorough to garner greater input from the concerned tribes. Clarke said, “It’s our belief system that there is no hurry but you must give all decisions true consideration. There’s a time and a place for everything and this [laser show] just wasn’t it.” Asked if the show could have been projected on another surface, one not considered sacred by the Cahuilla, Clarke said that was a possibility that could be further investigated.

When reached on Dec. 26, Fojtik said he will not be involved in any administrative capacity with future shows but that Kuscher may have other ideas. “Gary and I have talked with [Idyllwild] Fire Chief Reitz about that agency taking the lead in organizing future shows,” said Fojtik. “The chief seemed interested but we haven’t gotten back with him yet.” Fojtik said at this point, future shows are still works in progress.

Idyllwild Water ceases recycled water plan

By JP Crumrine

News Editor

At its first meeting on 2017, the reconstituted Idyllwild Water District Board of Directors unanimously agreed to end the district’s pursuit of a recycled water treatment facility.

IWD began exploring the possibility of a treatment plant to recycle wastewater in 2008. After several years of study, IWD applied for and received some state funding for the project.

Two major steps were in front of the board if the facility were built. First, the state wanted final plans detailing the size and the area served, and where the water would be used.

Secondly, the board needed to decide how much money it would invest in the plant’s construction and operation. The state had agreed to provide some grant money and a loan, but this would not be enough for the total costs.

During a special meeting in December 2016, former General Manager Tom Lovejoy told the board that the project’s success is a “pipedream.” In Lovejoy’s opinion, the proposed recycling project, which was initiated nearly eight years ago, was not cost-effective for the district.

“There is insufficient demand [for the produced irrigation water],” he stated. “It wasn’t feasible during my tenure and the only difference is we’re eligible for a grant.”

One of his primary objections is the lack of analysis for the plant’s production and its costs.

At the first meeting in January, Interim General Manager Jack Hoagland recommended against any further efforts to build the facility. He told the board, “Certainly now it is not financially feasible and I don’t see a way to go forward.”

The current plan does not support the “unique demographic, geographic and hydrologic conditions of the community.”

Both Lovejoy and Hoagland felt there was insufficient demand for recycled water to justify its production. This alone would increase the cost of the project to the district since there would be less revenue generated to pay the loans.

The district’s cost would probably more than double to at least $2.25 million, Hoagland estimated.

While some proponents argued that the water could be piped to Foster Lake to recharge the wells there, Hoagland debunked that premise, calling it “… likely never credible…”.

According to Hoagland, water at Foster Lake percolates into the ground too fast.

“The state wants at least six months’ retention time,” he said. “There is no way to make that happen.”

Also, the recycled water has a higher salt content, which would diminish the quality of the Foster Lake water over time. To maintain the water quality, ultimately the district would need to build a desalting facility.

At the end of the discussion, the board unanimously approved Hoagland’s recommendation to pursue the project’s termination with state agencies.

Premature start of cannabis business raises local concerns

By JP Crumrine

News Editor

The confusion over whether the use of marijuana — or cannabis — is legal in California or would be soon, created a brouhaha on the Hill this summer. Several entrepreneurs felt medical use was permitted and recreational — or adult-use — would be in January.

However, all of the cannabis propositions and laws establishing its legal uses defer the implementation and local legality to each of the state’s 57 counties.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, which permitted the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. In 2003, the state Legislature created a system for using medical marijuana cards.

In November 2016, Proposition 64, which authorized using and selling of small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes, was approved. Its effective date is Jan. 1, 2018.

But these state laws depend upon county ordinances for local legality. Current Riverside County ordinances still prohibit using and marketing marijuana or cannabis throughout the unincorporated areas.

On June 27, 2017, the governor signed the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, which combined the medical- and adult-use regulatory schemes to create one single regulatory structure at the state level.

This law continues to recognize local control and the state cannot approve licenses for cannabis businesses and cannabis activities if the license would not be in compliance with the local government’s ordinances or regulations.

Therefore, Riverside County residents and visitors must understand, “medical and adult-use cannabis businesses and cannabis activities remain banned in the unincorporated area,” according to the county’s “Cannabis in Riverside County” website.

Two shops were selling medical marijuana and a third was planned. Some residents appreciated their proximity, which would save them considerable treks to the desert or western Riverside County. Many others felt this breach of county law was a significant step toward lawlessness on the Hill.

The concern was amplified because the new business efforts began about the same time as a series of local break-ins. This coincidence re-enforced the fear that gangs would change the quiet, bucolic lifestyle here.

In September, Code Enforcement officers visited Idyllwild and posted papers on both shops indicating their businesses violated county codes and should shut down.

The county board of supervisors began to review its cannabis policies in March, with a presentation from the District Attorney’s Office. At that meeting, it created an ad hoc committee on cannabis.

In August, the board approved a more thorough review of the current ordinances and the possibility of changing the county’s long-standing opposition to any cannabis businesses or legal use in the unincorporated areas.

Supv. Kevin Jeffries (1st District), one of two members composing the ad hoc committee, emphasized that the future legalization of cannabis marketing will be totally dependent upon the approval of a tax measure on the November 2018 ballot.

The board unanimously (3-0) — Supv. Marion Ashley (5th District) abstained and Supv. John Tavaglione (2nd District) was absent — approved the recommendation of the Cannabis Committee to direct staff to begin developing a comprehensive regulatory program for commercial cannabis.

As he introduced the recommendations of the ad hoc committee, Jeffries said, “I did not vote for Proposition 64 nor am I a marijuana enthusiast or an advocate. But it is my opinion we have lost the war on cannabis in Riverside County. And it is time to start regulating it to protect our neighborhoods.”

One of the reasons the ad hoc committee recommended that the board move toward a legal but regulated cannabis industry, was the futility of banning it and trying to enforce the laws.

An official Riverside County website has been created on the Planning Department website. At http://planning.rctlma.org/Home/Cannabis.aspx, individuals can submit general views about cannabis and its regulation. To be included in a report to the supervisors, comments should be submitted no later than Jan. 7, 2018.

Individuals can also provide input through a community input worksheet (http://planning.rctlma.org/Portals/0/Cannabis/Community%20input%20Worksheet%20Packet.pdf?ver=2017-10-12-205231-290).

Town businesses take action after rash of break-ins

By JP Crumrine

News Editor

Numerous home and business break-ins aroused concern about an expanding crime wave in Idyllwild this summer. However, unlike Hemet and the Coachella Valley, neither the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department nor District Attorney’s Office needed to conduct any Gang Task Force raids on the Hill.

With the well-publicized reduction in Sheriff Department deputies, here and throughout the county, several business people felt hiring a private security firm to augment the sheriff’s patrols would be prudent.

During August, local worries seemed to peak, but Capt. Leonard Purvis of the Sheriff’s Department’s Hemet Station took the initiative to address several local groups about the situation.

Not only did he meet with the Pine Cove Property Owners Association, he spoke to a group of residents at Town Hall the same morning in early September. Purvis came here to answer questions, as well as wanting to learn more about the concerns of Hill residents.

Initial fears were about organized gangs establishing a foothold in Idyllwild in order to sell drugs.

Purvis popped that balloon with his response that “… hasn’t been on our radar. There is no major crime syndicate here. It’s mostly a homeless issue and problem.”

And he stressed that homelessness is not a crime, and he agreed as one audience member stressed, “It’s not just the homeless.”

The object of these break-ins, in Purvis’s opinion, was to steal property, which could be converted to cash, necessary to buy drugs, including methamphetamine and even heroin. While the drug sources may be off the Hill, when the need exists, individuals find a way to obtain the drug.

Despite Purvis’ assurances that gangs were not establishing a foothold on the Hill, business people wanted more insurance.

In late September, a group of residents contacted Valley Forge Private Security of Hemet to patrol the Idyllwild business area at night. VFPS website says it offers “para-policing protection.”

Purvis attended this meeting, too, and told the attendees that he could not endorse the action, but “I appreciate the extra help. I really like Idyllwild and care for the community.”

On Sept. 25, another public meeting was called to introduce VFPS to the community and describe its mission here.

Joel Feingold, one of several people helping to organize the private effort, introduced Dan Hinojosa, VFPS operations manager. “It’s a push back [against the recent crime] in a legal manner with higher security,” Feingold said, describing the group’s plan.

Several local businesses agreed to contribute $100 monthly toward this security effort and a private benefactor was willing to match the town’s funding, according to Feingold.

The initial plan, which began within a week, had VFPS patrol the business area from Fern Valley Corners to the Idyllwild Community Center neighborhood between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“I’m here to roam in the city while you are sleeping,” Hinojosa told everyone. “I want these people to know you take it on your own to stop crime.”

He compared his companies “para-policing” to the more familiar “paramedical,” — “We’re one step under law enforcement.”

In response to a question about what residents can do to help prevent or combat these break-ins, Purvis, who attended this meeting, too, advocated the acquisition and installation of camera equipment around a residence. These “home videos” are used more frequently to prosecute thieves, he noted.

Also, he encouraged “know your neighbor.” Being familiar with neighbors, establishing a Neighborhood Watch and getting involved with the Mountain Community Patrol group are positive actions to deter crime.