DESERT CENTER — The small talk at the lunch counter of the Desert Center Cafe grew as hot as the coffee steaming from the plastic mugs Thursday morning.
"I tell you," snapped Kitty Morris, the cafe's middle-aged waitress, as she poured fresh coffee into the cups of her friends, Anita Harley and Jim Tomlinson. "I don't wanna be known as the biggest dumping ground in the world."
The three were ruminating about a strange turn of events that has brought this remote desert community in eastern Riverside County into the public eye.
Within a matter of days, these desert residents have found themselves fighting for their semi-isolated life style after hearing of proposals to put a notorious criminal in their midst and to build a jail to hold inmates from both Orange and Riverside counties.
And these come on the heels of a much-criticized plan to open a trash disposal dump less than 15 miles from their homes in the sparsely populated towns of Eagle Mountain, Desert Center, Chiriaco Summit and Lake Tamarisk.
To make matters worse, some angry residents said on Thursday, they remain bitter over their lost battle to block a minimum security prison at a nearby abandoned mine.
The California Department of Corrections opened the Eagle Mountain Return-to-Custody Center in September, 1988, to house nonviolent inmates who had returned to prison for parole violations. State corrections officials plan to double the size of that 200-inmate facility as early as next month.
"There's only so much we can take out here," said Morris, slamming a wet towel on a stainless steel countertop.
Some residents fear that their small desert towns, which lie midway between Blythe and Indio in Riverside County, are at a crossroads.
And they don't like it, not one bit.
The locals, many of whom have lived for decades in this region of cactus, tumbleweeds and Joshua trees, say the recent events show that urban policy makers in Orange and Riverside counties are unfairly targeting their area as places to export big city problems, from imprisoned criminals unwanted in urban areas to mountains of household trash generated each day in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
"I just don't like the idea of Los Angeles bringing all its garbage out here," said Harley, 52, of Eagle Mountain, as she took a deep drag of her cigarette.
Tomlinson chimed in: "I guess we're being isolationists, but we don't want all the problems of the city. Right now, I can come over here and grab a cup of coffee. Hell, I don't even lock my door."
Tuesday night, local residents, by a 150-35 vote, rejected a request by state corrections officials to house Charles Rothenberg when he ias paroled from state prison early next year.
Rothenberg, who doused his son with kerosene in a Buena Park motel and set him on fire in 1983, is tentatively scheduled to be released on Jan. 9 from the California Men's Colony at San Luis Obispo.
State correction officials had asked local residents if Rothenberg should be allowed to live in a shack at the Eagle Mountain Return-to-Custody Center. Under an agreement reached between correction officials and residents last year, any inmate convicted of violent crime can be housed at the 200-member facility only after residents' approval.
The residents' overwhelming objection to that plan has forced state correction officials to seek another site for Rothenberg, said Ron Russell, project director for the facility. The prison is operated by a private Utah-based company under agreement with the state Department of Corrections.
"He's not coming here," Russell said Wednesday. "It's over. The residents made it clear they don't want him."
Russell said officials of the facility, located in the shadow of Eagle Mountain, have had no problems with inmates. "It's been a model place," he said, adding that most members of the community who had once opposed the facility now give it their blessing.
"We keep the community advised about what we are doing at all times," Russell said. "It's the only way to work them."
But such assurances have done little to allay the fears of some of the 600 or so area residents, many of whom say they believe that the facility was the first step to more trouble from the big city.
Tomlinson, a Caltrans worker who has lived in Desert Center for 21 years, said he had long suspected the minimum-security prison eventually would lead to other unwanted projects.
"It's like a courtship," Tomlinson said to the nods of a growing crowd of patrons wandering in for lunch. "Everybody (at the facility) is on good behavior" now, but later, he said, it will "all (go) to heck."
Some residents, though, say the towns should welcome change in the financially strapped area, which almost became a series of ghost towns when the Kaiser Steel Co. closed its iron mining operation in the area several years ago.