‘First family’ recalls the early days

The Donigan family home as it appears today. (photo by Bella Ross)

‘First family’ recalls the early days

In the early days of Scripps Ranch, the first families were forced to learn the value of public services the hard way.

Sheila Donigan, who moved into the new community in 1969, knows the struggle best.

“There was nothing. Nobody. We barely had electricity,” she said. “We had no phone service – and I used to work for the phone company.”

Sheila and her late husband Paul Donigan purchased their Rookwood Drive home – now worth nearly $1 million – for $38,800 that year. All their friends said they were crazy at the time.

“Twenty years later those friends come around and say, ‘You are the luckiest people we know. You’re barely 20 miles from downtown and you can get anywhere in the county,’” said Jay Donigan, one of Sheila’s three children.

The Donigan family was the first to move into the new community in 1969. (courtesy photo)

The 1970s marks an unusual time in Scripps Ranch history as the decade the area – former home to newspaper magnate E.W. Scripps’ estate – erupted into the sprawling suburban oasis it is today. But before there were schools and parks, there were dirt roads and model homes – and not much else.

Jay was 8 and a half when the family moved into the community. It resembled more of a construction site in the early days, providing a vast playground of half-built homes and untouched sewers for the kids to poke their heads into.

“I’d been in pretty much every house in this section of Scripps Ranch before they were even built,” Jay said, recalling the days when he and other neighborhood kids would collect old soda bottles left behind at the constriction sites to trade in for change.

While it was all fun and games for the kids, Sheila said she was haunted by the apprehension she felt moving into the unfinished neighborhood as progress on the site seemed to come to a halt.

It quickly became apparent that the developer was falling short on a lot of the promises made in the initial advertisements for the neighborhood, including amenities such as RV storage and a finished sewer system.

In response to the false promises, in 1970, the Donigans joined with 19 other families to chip in for a lawyer as part of the very first class action lawsuit ever against a developer in the state of California.

The group eventually prevailed, ensuring the establishment of amenities such as schools and parks for the community in return, Sheila said.

“For seven years, we all were walking on pins and needles because, if the developer had won, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I don’t know where we would be.”

Sadly, for the early families who settled in Scripps Ranch, the benefits of having a community with a network of public services couldn’t be enjoyed until much later.

Jay, for one, attended too many schools to count on one hand. The kids’ first school after moving from Ocean Beach, where they lived before Scripps Ranch, was merely a set of single-family homes in Mira Mesa that were converted into classrooms. Then they attended a small school called “Site 1” on Red Rock Drive.

After eventually graduating from Mira Mesa High School, Jay pursued an education in political science. He said growing up in the early days of Scripps Ranch taught him the role of government in a way that many people might take for granted.

“The fire department guys lived in trailers at the lake because that’s where the fire station had been. … that was years and years before we had a real fire department with a real building.” Jay said.

More than 50 years later, Scripps Ranch has expanded from the Donigan’s humble family of five to a community of nearly 35,000 residents. As for their original home – Sheila still lives there. Jay lives down the street.

The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, but some things stay the same. Sheila said the culture of the community has been built on kindness.

“There are more people with young kids, and it’s a completely different generation,” she said. “But they’re nice people.”

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