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River Path Del Mar extension making giant strides

DEL MAR — Plans to extend River Path Del Mar, a quarter-mile stretch of land between San Dieguito Drive and the lagoon, are “moving forward with lightning speed,” Joseph Smith, the city’s associate planner, told council members during a project update at the April 6 meeting.

River Path Del Mar is part of the San Dieguito segment of the scenic loop trail, a seven-mile hiking trail around the city’s perimeter that is divided into seven key sections.

It currently provides pedestrian access along the river’s south edge between the river mouth and Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

The extension would advance the path east from Jimmy Durante to the Old Grand Avenue Bridge viewpoint and bring the scenic loop trail one step closer to a future connection at the Crest Canyon segment.

It is a joint project between the city and the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy for an estimated cost of $475,000, which includes project design, entitlements and easement acquisition, construction and environmental review and mitigation,

Funds committed to date include $78,000 in private donations, $20,000 from the city and $10,000 from the Riverview project development agreement.

The biggest financial boost came in September, when the conservancy received a $150,000 grant from the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program facilitated by County Supervisor Dave Roberts. The funds are designated for project design and environmental review and must be used by Sept. 15, 2015.

There have been 23 stakeholder outreach meetings. Last month the San Dieguito Lagoon Committee recommended approval of the concept and alignments and started to work on recommendations for design elements such as picnic tables, bench styles, signage, vegetation buffers and fencing.

City staff is working to complete the necessary authorizations from the various property owners as the project area spans 15 parcels, eight of which are privately owned and require public access easements.

The project is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission in May, the Design Review Board in June and the California Coastal Commission and City Council this summer.

Construction is slated to begin in October.

Jon Terwilliger, senior management analyst, said a portion of the project could definitely be completed despite the $217,000 budget shortfall.

“You’d have to have a scaled-back project,” he said. “Maybe some of the finishing touches wouldn’t be there.”

Work is expected to take about 55 days.

“We have about a two-month window, which is really toward the end of September through November,” Smith said. “That’s our target date to knock out the heavy construction.”

Nesting season will be taking place and wet-season grading is prohibited, he said. If we miss that then we’re going to have to wait until the wet season and the nesting season are closed in early 2016, he added.

The extension includes two planned alignments. A primary trail will allow pedestrians to walk near the river and lagoon. A secondary path will take them along the east shoulder of San Dieguito Drive.

There will be three connections between the two alignments, which will be mostly constructed with decomposed granite.

Portions of the secondary trail will feature colored concrete and paved areas near the intersection of San Dieguito and Jimmy Durante.

The project also includes two overlook areas with benches and two picnic areas. Cable post fencing will be installed at limited locations for public safety and to create a buffer from identified brackish marsh habitat.

The California Coastal Commission is requiring that coastal sage scrub be replanted.

Resident John Gillies asked council to consider replacing that with a saltwater marsh to restore wetlands.

Although sage scrub requires no excavation, is drought tolerant and calls for about $10,000 worth of dirt removal, it is not native to the properties, would require irrigation, grows too tall to see over and in his opinion is not attractive, he said.

“This is not my favorite look, especially on the banks of a lagoon,” Gillies said.

A saltwater marsh, on the other hand, is native to the properties and consistent with the rest of the lagoon, he said. It does not require replanting or irrigation if planted correctly, is low-lying and always green.

“It keeps the vistas open,” he said.

However, it requires moving a lot more dirt at a cost of about $132,000.

According to his estimate, the net additional cost for saltwater marsh would be $80,000.

“Do we want to do the right thing by this last little piece of lagoon here and put in more wetland or do we want to create a coastal sage forest right on the banks of the river?” he asked. “If we’re going to do this, why not shoot for the stars and do it right?”

Resident Bill Michalsky urged council to move forward with the plan as is, saying, “it fulfills a lot of needs and it also opens up a really beautiful area to the public.”

Council members agreed. Don Mosier said it would be inappropriate to consider other alternatives “when we’re halfway down the path to finishing this.”

“We need to stay on track,” he said.

“Personally I prefer the wetlands restoration but not at the expense of exploding a plan that we’re down the road on,” Councilman Dwight Worden said, adding that he would like to reserve the opportunity for wetland restoration in the future.