By Kirk Sanderson
The portion of the Coastal Rail Trail through Cardiff will be built on the east side of the railroad tracks, after all.
The California Coastal Commission on May 11 followed a staff recommendation and voted against a proposal by the city of Encinitas to build the trail on the west side of the Coast Highway, instead. The proposal was brought to the board by the commission’s local representative, San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, but failed, 5-7, despite an impassioned pitch by Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear.
Blakespear initially favored a plan to build the trail on the east side of the tracks, but changed her mind after overwhelming opposition from Cardiff residents, who didn’t want to lose the blufftop parking along Vulcan Avenue – and who bristled at the requirement for a four-foot-tall fence between the trail and the railroad tracks as a safety measure. Her position against the east-side trail solidified when it became clear that the bike trail had to be at least 18 feet wide, a requirement that would destroy much of the native vegetation in the area.
The Encinitas City Council in March 2016 voted 4-1 to build the trail on the west side of the Coast Highway, along the shore. Only then-Councilmember Lisa Shaffer was opposed, saying she still favored the trail going in on the east side of the track tracks, as she did in May 2015, when the Council initially voted to construct the trail there.
The Coastal Rail Trail is a countywide project to build a 44-mile continuous bike and pedestrian route between Oceanside and the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego. Initially planned in the mid-1990s, the trail is being constructed in segments by the San Diego Association of Governments and the various cities it traverses. The Cardiff segment of the Coastal Rail Trail is funded by a $5 million grant from SANDAG.
In concept, the trail runs alongside the railroad tracks, but this isn’t always possible due to the rail line’s configuration. In south Carlsbad, for example, segments of the trail run along the west side of the Coast Highway because the train tracks cross over the Batiquitos Lagoon and there isn’t room for a bike trail. Similarly, in Solana Beach, the Coastal Rail Trail was built on the east side of the Coast Highway because the train tracks are trenched.
In her latest newsletter, Blakespear bemoans the Coastal Commission vote. “It was a disheartening finish to a very long day,” she writes. “The city lost at the Coastal Commission … in our effort to have the Coastal Rail Trail built along the ocean on Highway 101, through 1.3 miles in Cardiff west of the railroad tracks.”
Supervisor Cox, Blakespear wrote, “spoke knowledgably and comprehensively about the reasons for supporting the city and SANDAG’s preferred placement. I am grateful for his support.
“After that failure, the next motion was to require the building of the rail trail east of the railroad tracks through Cardiff – it was supported unanimously by the 12 commissioners. This was a tremendous disappointment for many of us. The city and SANDAG did everything we could to prevail at the Coastal Commission. As mayor, I gave an impassioned presentation, complete with pictures and aerials. SANDAG planner Linda Culp emphasized the discretion given to SANDAG to determine the best location, and the environmental and physical problems with constructing the trail east of the tracks.
Council Members Tasha Boerner-Horvath and Joe Mosca also spoke in favor of the west-side plan…. After sitting through seven hours before our turn came, I was struck by the limitations inherent in their process.
“The commissioners have three days of dawn-till-midnight hearings on major statewide issues that aren’t in their home communities, documented by voluminous factual and legal records. Many of the commissioners are elected officials, who undoubtedly spend the majority of their time and energy on their own cities’ priorities. They meet every month in different parts of the state. Because there is no way they can grasp the nuances of every project, they rely on professional staff to vet and synthesize.
“When arguing a point before any governing body, it’s unquestionably better to have their staff on your side. In our case, the Commission staff was against us, making the argument that there was no physical or environmental constraint to building the trail east of the tracks inside the rail corridor, where it has been planned for the last 20 years, and therefore Encinitas shouldn’t be allowed to deviate from the plan. Several commissioners who voted against us didn’t speak at all, so it’s hard to know what their reasons were, or how deep into the legal or practical analysis they got.
“The Coastal Commission takes heat for many of its decisions. Nearly every issue they decide is contentious. It seems like a thankless, high-stakes job, and their judgments have weighty consequences.
“The strange irony is that I could easily imagine Coastal Commission staff arguing for our side – that the native habitat, sandstone features and the vegetation-rich areas in the rail corridor needed to be protected and requiring the bike highway to be built where it’s already paved, on the ocean side of Highway 101.
“Coastal Commission staff, and others, repeatedly suggest that we should do both east and west-side projects. They say that nothing stops us from doing the Highway 101 west-side improvement outside of this rail trail process.
“This is easy to say, but difficult to do when you’re responsible for the city’s budget. Both the raw dollars and the operational limitations of the city staff’s managerial and technical capacity make this idea impractical, at least for the next couple of years.
“The Coastal Commission is the final decision maker. They were the appellate court and there isn’t a higher body to take our case to. We now have to adapt, doing the best we can with the realities in front of us. I know some residents are thrilled with this outcome, and others are disconsolate.”