it's not all champagne and roses in the skies above Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Or: Another day, another hot air balloon crash...
With the second downed hot air balloon in 10 days just after 5 p.m. Thursday, this time at Rancho Diegueno Road, not far from San Dieguito Road at Fairbanks Ranch, it's not all champagne and roses in the skies above Rancho Santa Fe.
This was the scene on Jan. 8 at Rancho Penasquitos where, according to San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque, a hot air balloon landed in the back of a home on Calle de los Ninos at Avenida De La Cantina shortly after 4:45 p.m.
The balloon operator who emergency landed Thursday scoured the brush topped hills for a landing space before touching down in a rural residential area near Fairbanks Village Plaza shopping center, according to San Diego County sheriff’s Lt. Mario Zermeno who shied away from saying the balloon crashed. No one was injured, Zemeno said. The "landing" site was within shouting distance of Rancho Santa Fe's newest fire station as well as the Helen C. Woodward Animal Center.
The forced landing followed a more eventful tilt at disaster's windmill on Jan. 8 when one person was slightly injured during a forced landing of a balloon carrying a 14-person wedding party at Rancho Penasquitos, about 10 miles southeast of Thursday's crash. The balloon crashed into a suburban home's yard.
Residents have cited numerous instances of balloon companies abusing landing rules, cutting gate locks, trashing areas including damaging environmentally sensitive landscapes, lying about emergency landings and generally disrespecting community norms.
"We have had confrontations with the balloon people calling us all sorts of names when they land on our properties," said Lynn Diamond, a Rancho Santa Fe Covenant resident who retired in 2010 as Carlsbad Police Department spokeswoman.
"They have put up chains, cut locks and put up their own locks on people's property," Diamond said. "Then, they claim they are landing due to an FAA emergency. Homeowners who try to ask them to leave private property are subject to verbal abuse, threats, lies and profanity.
"They are driving around with their trucks dragging equipment and trashing away," Diamond said. "They are also abusing open spaces and endangered habitat. They land wherever they want. It's definitely not what it is portrayed to be. They are a constant problem."
Likewise, Annie Fonte, a property owner and resident in the covenant area just beyond the Zumaque Gate, along the environmentally sensitive San Dieguito Riverbed, said balloon companies on several occasions had trespassed, scared her animals and generally ravaged the landscape.
"I'll be walking with my dogs and horses," Fonte said, "and often see the champagne corks, napkins and clues as to where they landed. You ask these folks who they are and they are elusive. They won't answer questions. It can be dark and you don't know who these people are.
The end result, God forbid, is they crash into somebody's home. It would be a tragedy."
(Photo: A pumpkin patch in October, this area by Rancho Santa Fe Village shoppng center serves as a take-off and landing spot for hot air balloon operators although it is unclear if they have the property owner's permission)
Balloonists for hire have landed on her property without authorization three times in the last year, according to Fonte, who also has traced balloon skid marks along several parts of the nearby, and environmentally protected, Lusardi Creek Preserve.
Furthermore, balloon companies said a root cause of local communication problems and complaints stemmed from development in the area depriving them of once available open space landing areas.
Due to the fly-by-sunset nature of the commercial balloon ride for profit industry, it was impossible to determine how many companies offer such services locally. However, those involved in the industry put the number of operators at around nine. About four, or five, operate from San Diego County with the remainder based in the Temecula area
Generally, they offer flights along the Pacific Coast through Carmel Valley and into the Rancho Santa Fe area, starting around dusk and taking place on weekends.
Rides offer champagne or cider, photo opportunities and tours, generally lasting from 30 minutes to several hours. Costs vary but generally are around $80 per person for a half-hour ride to $200, or more, for an hour. A private charter may cost around $650 to $800 for one to two hours.
These businesses typically operate out of homes and meet customers at pre-designated open field areas. Currently, many meet customers near Flower Hill Mall off Via de la Valle or near MiraCosta College off Manchester Road in Olivenhain.
Local operators included Rancho Santa Fe resident Frank Reed and Sunballoon, Connie Von Zweck of Skysurfer from Del Mar, David Bradley of Temecula-based California Dreamin', Panorama Balloon Tours with a Del Mar post office box and apparent home-based location in Carlsbad, Sky's the Limit operated by James Lawson out of Encinitas and Balloon Addicts, location unknown.
Only Reed and Von Zweck agreed to speak on the record about the industry and their activities.
"The balloon companies have not done a good job of promoting themselves," Von Zweck said. "You only hear from people who don't like something. You don't always hear the positive. We need to communicate with the public to educate people and raise public awareness of ballooning."
Reed said, "For the most part, the people in the Rancho Santa Fe area have worked exceptionally well with us. Some people, who have been vocal about us, don't even own the properties. We don't trespass on properly posted property. But landing is an imperfect science."
The Balloon Federation of America is considered the leading voluntary, balloonist membership organization with 3,000 members.
The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, regulates hot air balloonists, according to Ian Gregory, the FAA Western-Pacific Region communications manager. Balloon pilots must pass a variety of written and hands-on flight tests to be commercially rated and allowed to charge people for rides, he said.
The FAA requires any emergency landings to be reported to the agency within 48 hours, but had no record of any in San Diego County from 2002 to 2008, according to the last available sources. There were eight reported balloon accidents in the state and 97 nationwide during that period, Gregor said.
As for liability to property owners would a balloon crash, "Balloonists in such circumstances are trespassers," Gregor said. "When they enter they have no right or privilege, the responsibility is theirs, and they must assume the risk of what they may encounter."