By: BILL HORN - Commentary published in the North County Times

San Diego County is famous for its diverse Southern California landscape. From our world-class observatory on Mount Palomar, to our beaches and lagoons, to the wilderness of the Anza-Borrego State Park, San Diego County is an environmental gem. In fact, this county has more endangered plant and animal species than any other county in the United States. Is it any wonder that we are also home to the only remaining intact Mexican land grant in the state, Rancho Guejito?

Since 1974, when the state of California failed to purchase the land for a park, the Coates family has preserved Rancho Guejito. With more than 22,000 acres of ranching and pristine habitat, the Guejito has remained much the way it was when it was granted in 1845 to Jose Orozco by the then-governor of California, Pio Pico. The Valley Center History Museum has a display of documents tracing the land back to the King of Spain, thanks in part to a generous donation by the Coates family.

The generosity of the Coates family extended to me as well, as they have invited me onto the ranch several times since I became supervisor more than a decade ago. I've also had the privilege of horseback riding on the property at the invitation of Benjamin Coates, and with each successive visit I was impressed by the fact that the Coates family understood their role as caretakers of this very special place.

When I toured the property last spring I was pleased to hear that even though her husband had passed away, Nancy Coates wanted to preserve the place where her husband had "found his deepest happiness." The family knows they own a piece of California history and believe in preserving that history. Given the long history of Coates stewardship I was baffled when representatives of the family last week expressed a desire to have Rancho Guejito annexed into the city of Escondido.

For three decades the Coates family has protected this cultural, biological and historical sanctuary. In the 1990s the San Diego County Water Authority considered a water storage reservoir in the Guejito Valley. That proposal was rejected. More recently the San Diego County Airport Authority considered locating a second airport in the Guejito. That proposal was rejected. Now there is a long shot proposal to annex the Guejito into Escondido and possibly build a university medical school research campus on the property. Just like the reservoir and airport proposals, I think this proposal will be viewed unfavorably by the public when compared with the value of preserving this jewel of San Diego County.

As a longtime member and current vice chairman of the Local Agency Formation Commission, I see numerous annexation proposals every year. Our state-mandated goals are to encourage orderly growth, preserve agricultural lands and promote logical and efficient government services. Most annexations involve a few acres contiguous with a city boundary and provide an improvement of public services, such as sewer, water, fire and police, to the property owner.

In the case of a Rancho Guejito annexation, not only would the task of providing improved services and infrastructure be a Herculean effort, but the property is not currently contiguous to the boundaries of the city. The entire area east and west of Lake Wohlford would have to be annexed into Escondido to create contiguity with Rancho Guejito. This leap-frog pattern of development contradicts the stated goals of LAFCO and flies in the face of the good planning efforts the county is trying to achieve through its general plan update and a proposed habitat conservation program for North County.

Rancho Guejito is a piece of San Diego heritage that existed long before California became a state. It has survived and played host to the indigenous peoples who first settled this region, to colonists and ranchers who cultivated the land. The story of California is written on its hills, its adobes and its plant and animal populations. The Coates family is the most recent in a long line of faithful protectors of that heritage. My hope is that their stewardship will be rewarded by private organizations and public agencies joining in an effort to preserve this vital piece of California history once and for all.

Bill Horn is the San Diego County 5th District Supervisor and vice chairman of the Local Agency Formation Commission