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a hot-air balloonUp, Up and Away

Urban sprawl deflates North County’s once-soaring hot-air balloon business

Most days around sunset, the skies of North County are freckled with colorful hot-air balloons, floating up, up and away and affording passengers breathtaking views of the Del Mar coastline, Torrey Pines and Solana Beach. But with more and more residential construction filling in the vast expanses of open space that once buffered Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe, hot-air ballooning, at least in San Diego County, is an endangered species.

When the ballooning craze lifted off in the late 1970s, says Conni von Zweck, there were easily a dozen companies offering hot-air balloon rides. Skysurfer Balloon, which she opened with her late husband in 1978, was one of the first.

But today, she says, shaking her head sadly, there are just four companies left. What’s more, several other balloon-ride operators in the Temecula area who used to cruise into San Diego’s North County coastal region now stick to their own turf, simply because there are so few places left to launch or land.

California Dreamin’ used to be based in Escondido but relocated to Temecula last January. The company still offers sunset flights over Del Mar, but, according to co-owner Gail Bradley, their frequency “is decreasing. It’s getting more challenging to fly out there.”

The construction of State Route 56 is eating away valuable open space. And several housing projects still in the early phases of construction have put von Zweck and other balloonists on notice they are not welcome.

Among them is Santaluz, a 3,800-acre planned community, complete with 250-acre championship golf course, in the San Dieguito River Valley. It’s a low-density development, with one housing unit for every 4 acres. The developer has sent balloon-ride companies a letter asking them to please stay away.

Von Zweck is incensed. On several occasions, she says, wind currents carried balloons to Santaluz, where they were met by stern-faced security guards, even uniformed San Diego police officers, warning them that if they land again, they face arrest.

“Now, if wind currents go in that direction, we cancel our flights,” von Zweck says. “There’s nothing there but ugly, flat dirt. This is just ridiculous.”

Not so, counters Bill Stewart, the Santaluz development’s “town manager.”

“If they find a place to land, it’s generally a street, or a golf course, or a park,” he says. “And it’s not just a matter of them simply landing their balloons. They have chase vehicles, one with a trailer for the balloon and another for the passengers, and those vehicles have broken into our community any way they can.”

Stewart says he’s concerned about liability issues. “We have 500 families living here,” he says. “This isn’t a development anymore; it’s a community.”

He concedes he’s called the cops on errant balloonists, but only “after about 30 surreptitious landings—and after we asked them personally and by correspondence not to land on our property.”
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