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Coastal Commission turns down preferred Rail Trail route

A divided California Coastal Commission voted to reject Encinitas’ preferred route for a segment of the Coastal Rail Trail that will run through Cardiff-by-the-Sea, leaving elected officials and residents who attended the hearing stunned.

The state’s coastal regulatory body voted 7-5 to side with its staff, which argued that the 1.3-mile stretch of bike and pedestrian paths, part of a much larger countywide coastal trail network, should be placed on the east side of the rail right of way along San Elijo Avenue.

Encinitas,  regional officials and residents preferred a western alignment of the trail along Coast Highway 101.

The Encinitas City Council previously voted to support the eastern alignment preferred by the Coastal Commission, but reversed course in 2016 after heavy opposition from residents.

Residents left the meeting booing and questioning the commission’s decision.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear, Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath and Councilman Joe Mosca, who spoke during the two-hour hearing, were visibly surprised by the vote.

“I’m shocked,” Blakespear said outside of the hearing, which was held at the San Diego County Board of Supervisors chambers. “I didn’t think it would go that way.”

Boerner Horvath on Twitter said that the decision guarantees “guaranteeing no near term fundable bike/ped facilities.”

The Coastal Rail Trail is a 44-mile project that runs parallel to the coastal rail tracks between Oceanside and downtown San Diego that has been in the works since 1989 and is one-third completed.

Encinitas, the San Diego Association of Governments – the regional agency coordinating the Coastal Rail Trail project – and two dozen residents implored the Coastal Commission to place the trail west of the tracks along Coast Highway 101, which they said would preserve historic access to the coast and maintain one of the last vestiges of pristine natural coastal terrain.

The commission’s decision came at 8 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the second day of the board’s three-day session began. The 12-member board didn’t begin hearing the item until 6 p.m.

San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, who serves as San Diego’s representative on the coastal commission, was among the five members who voted in support of the so-called “western alignment.”

He and Commissioner Mark Vargas argued that the Coast Highway 101 alignment made the most sense and provided the most opportunities for coastal and trail access.

“I think it is the much more logical solution, I think it is the much safer solution,” Cox said.

Vargas concurred with Cox.

“It seems like the obvious choice is the western alignment,” he said.

The commissioners who voted in favor of the eastern alignment didn’t state their reason for support on the record, but Chairwoman Dayna Bochco and Commissioner Donne Brownsey asked several questions that gave an indication that they supported staff’s argument.

The Coastal Commission staff said they couldn’t support the western alignment because it was not part of a large plan that the agency previously adopted that covered a suite of projects, including the widening of Interstate 5 and the double tracking of the rail corridor through North County.

That plan, known as the North Coastal Corridor Public Works Plan and Transportation and Resource Enhancement Program, was adopted in 2014 called for the trail to run from Cardiff to downtown Encinitas along San Elijo and Vulcan Avenue.

The Encinitas City Council in May 2015 voted in 3-2 in favor of the eastern alignment, but in October of that year, residents along the rail corridor mounted a widespread opposition campaign. The “No Rail Trail” group peppered elected officials, city and regional staff and media for months with form letter that stated their reasons for opposing the eastern alignment.

The Council in March 2016 voted 4-1 to change its preference to the Coast Highway 101 alignment, arguing that the SANDAG rail trail was too large and aesthetically displeasing replacement for the undeveloped footpath that residents traverse along the rail corridor.

Coastal Commission staff said that they were not aware of the city and SANDAG’s change of heart until months later, when SANDAG submitted a request for a notice of development for the new trail alignment. They immediately cried foul, and remained opposed to the change ever since.

In order to move the trail away from the rail proper, staff argued, the commission needed to make findings that the new alignment would be considered a new project, or that the eastern alignment was not feasible due to environmental constraints.

Gabriel Buhr, the Coastal Commission’s San Diego program manager, said that staff concluded that they could not make these findings. Planning of the eastern alignment – which had been going on for two years before the SANDAG and the city suspended it in 2016 – did not find any environmental constraints that made the alignment unfeasible, and the Coast Highway 101 alternative was not a new project, but improved on existing infrastructure, he said.

“The only thing that changed was that some residents opposed it,” Buhr said. “It is a unique situation.”

SANDAG representative Linda Culp, who presented the agency’s case along with Blakespear, said the western alignment made more sense from a practical and a fiscal standpoint. The eastern alignment would generate $4 million more in costs to improve drainage and build retaining walls, and would require federal and state environmental studies.

These would likely create delays that would cause SANDAG to lose a $1 million grant it received for the project.

The west side, Culp said, received environmental clearance and the agency could be requesting construction bids by February.

“We have a shovel ready project we can afford that saves a $1 million grant that can be open in two years,” Culp said. “None of this can be said about the eastern alignment.”

Blakespear also noted that constructing the Coastal Rail Trail on the west side would not preclude the city from pursuing biking and pedestrian improvements along San Elijo Avenue, but said that the east side should be a local project, not a regional one.

“We want to improve both sides, but the bicycle highway belongs on Coast Highway 101,” Blakespear said.

Buhr countered that the same could be said about the western alignment – both projects had merit, and the city could still pursue improvements along Coast Highway 101 as an independent project.

“Bottom line, both are good projects,” Buhr said. “But the west side plan doesn’t meet the public works plan.”

Many of the major faces of the opposition movement – Cardiff residents Julie Thunder, Joe Alkhas and Richard Risner – attended the marathon session, as did former Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar.

Several of the residents reiterated concerns that an eastern alignment would trigger the erection of a fence that would block off traditional, albeit illegal, access to the beach across the tracks.

Gaspar had to leave before the hearing began, but her spokeswoman Itica Milanes told the commission she believed the council’s 2015 decision – which she opposed – had set up a series of ill-fated measures by the council to make the east alignment work, only to create more problems.

Gaspar, Milanes said, likened it to the children’s story “The Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly.”

“There is no viable east side plan for the Encinitas community,” Milanes said.

A handful of local residents who supported the east side project also spoke at the meeting, including former Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer. Shaffer, who voted against the council’s shift in the preferred alignment in 2016, said the east side plans got back two decades.

Shaffer told the commission that a vote for the west side alignment, according to the interpretation set out by staff, meant that an east side route is unfeasible, which isn’t the case.

“This decision is not a popularity contest or a referendum on the preferred route,” Shaffer said. “You are not elected officials in Encinitas, you are appointed … to look at the bigger picture.”

Buhr said that in the bigger picture, the eastern alignment would make more sense because the remaining mile of the trail through downtown Encinitas would have to continue along Vulcan Avenue. If the western alignment was chose, this would mean that cyclists would have to cross over to Vulcan through the Swami’s pedestrian undercrossing, which he said was not made for cyclists.

“A key part of our decision was regional connectivity,” Buhr said.

Blakespear after the meeting said she didn’t think the city had any recourse to challenge the decision, and would have to scramble to regroup.

“We haven’t discussed a Plan B,” Blakespear said. “I think there has to be some regrouping.”