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A view of the San Elijo Ecological Reserve and the Pacific Ocean from the Harbaugh Seaside Trails property at the north end of Solana Beach. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bright
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Solana Beach grants Harbaugh Trails permits

SOLANA BEACH — Improvement plans for a 3.44-acre vacant parcel at the northeast end of the city forged ahead at the Feb. 28 meeting, with council members approving the necessary permits for habitat restoration, minor grading and trail upgrades.

Once completed, the project will feature 2,080 linear feet of improvements through the triangular lot and a 780-linear-foot extension of the Solana Beach Coastal Rail Trail on the western boundary along Coast Highway 101.

If all goes as planned, habitat restoration, minor grading and trail upgrades for the 3.44-acre Harbaugh Seaside Trails property at the north end of Solana Beach will begin in July and take about a year to complete. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

Associated amenities include signage walls, donor and dedication areas, a view deck overlooking the San Elijo Ecological Reserve and the Pacific Ocean, an information kiosk and benches.

The trails will provide a connection to the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy’s existing system in the reserve via North County Transit District’s newly built railroad pedestrian underpass.

It is anticipated the extension of the Coastal Rail Trail would connect to a future Highway 101 crossing, providing access to Cardiff State Beach.

The property was home to a gas station in the 1950s and ’60s and a fruit stand in the ’70s. In 1982, San Diego County and the California Coastal Commission approved a project known as Sandcastle Resort for the site. Although it was never built, it concerned many residents.

Subsequent county approval of a 170-room Inn Suites on the parcel in 1985 prompted Solana Beach to seek and obtain cityhood a year later to ensure control over development within its borders.

The first act of the newly created City Council was approval of a moratorium that stopped all development in Solana Beach.

A scaled-down version of the Inn Suites project was eventually approved, but the company went bankrupt and the bank foreclosed on the property.

In 1996, Arizona-based Magellan Solana Beach purchased the lot for $2.8 million and about five years later submitted permit applications for a large hotel-condominium. It was the first of many projects proposed by the company that never came to fruition.

Asked at least twice about selling the property, Magellan said in early 2000 it wouldn’t consider any offers less than $7 million. Six years later the company stated in a letter to the city that it had a third-party appraisal for the property “as is” for $17.2 million.

Magellan then underwent some restructuring and was renamed Gateway Resort Solana Beach. A permit application for another scaled-down project was submitted in 2005 before the real estate bubble burst.

With an outstanding loan of about $5.2 million, the company negotiated a deed in lieu of foreclosure with Johnson Bank, which held the land until the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy purchased it Dec. 28, 2011, for approximately $4 million.

About a dozen “generous community members” provided loans ranging from $50,000 to $750,000 to save the site from proposed development, said Jennifer Bright, the conservancy’s development director.

The property was renamed Harbaugh Seaside Trails in 2015 in honor of a $1.15 million donation from the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation, which helped pay off the loans.

The city rezoned the land from general commercial to open space/preserve in 2017, which Bright described as “a momentous occasion for all involved.”

With feedback from community and stakeholder meetings, the conservancy released a proposed restoration plan in December 2016.

Doug Gibson, the conservancy’s executive director, said at the time he hoped construction would begin in June or July 2017 and take approximately six months to complete. But the permit process took a bit longer than expected.

According to current plans, asphalt from the old gas station and vegetation will be removed. The trail system will divide the lot into quadrants, with each focused on habitat restoration and native plants that include maritime scrub, maritime chaparral, maritime succulent and coastal dune.

Approval from the Coastal Commission is needed before work can start, but Bright said the conservancy is “not expecting to have issues.”

“We have to wait until they can get it on their calendar,” Gibson said. “We’d love for it to be heard in May in San Diego. That would be a great thing,”

Grading could start in July if that happens. Once underway the project should take about a year to complete, Gibson said, adding that planting will begin in the fall.

“You don’t want to plant during the summer,” he said. “We’re not going to rush it. We also want to ask the community to get involved.”

“Every milestone we reach is a big deal to the community,” said Gerri Retman, who was honored in 2012 for her efforts to secure the property as open space. “I think that the project’s great.”

She noted it was more than 30 years in the making.

Resident Tracy Richmond, who recalled filling his tank at the gas station when gas was .23 a gallon, described the current site as “horribly degraded.”

“This project will enhance it beyond belief,” he said. “It will enhance our city. I think it’s a wonderful project and I really look forward to walking it.”

“If there ever was a slam-dunk of doing something in the city of Solana Beach, this is it,” former Mayor Tom Golich said.

“It’s really been a long effort,” Councilman Dave Zito said. “The end result is worth it.

“I think this particular property shows, more than anything else, what persistence and diligence can pay off for because we’re going to end up with a great asset to the city,” he added. “It’s right at the entrance and it’s something that we’re going to cherish for many years to come.”

Councilwoman Jewel Edson described the project as a gateway to the city that is “perfect and organic and natural and just really showed us off.”

The city has earmarked a $1 million beautification grant from the state Department of Transportation for the improvement project. A little more than half was used to retire the conservancy’s debt to buy the property, Gibson said.

The remaining grant money will almost cover the restoration costs, he added.

Commemorative tiles are available for $2,500, $5,000 and $10,000. Call (760) 436-3944, ext. 708, for more information.