Caltrans buys large chunk of Manchester Ave. strawberry fields

The transit agency Caltrans recently acquired 25.6 acres of the scenic strawberry fields on Manchester Avenue, just east of Interstate 5, for $7.2 million.

Caltrans plans to: dedicate 6 acres to a park and ride as well as a freeway access ramp; set aside 6 acres for a community garden and other agriculture initiatives; and preserve 13.6 acres as open space, said Arturo Jacobo, project manager with Caltrans, in an interview with the Encinitas Advocate this week.

“Right now the current owner is in the process of removing their farm equipment from the area so that we can begin work at the end of this calendar year,” Jacobo said.

Caltrans officials in September announced the agency was in escrow to buy the property, although the terms weren’t disclosed then. The deal was finalized Dec. 1, according to Jacobo.

Looking at individual projects in and around the strawberry fields, the park and ride is designed to promote carpooling and biking. It would connect planned bike paths in the area.

“We want to boost coastal access, recreation and so on,” Jacobo said.

Meanwhile, the freeway access ramp aims to reduce wait times for cars that line up on Manchester Avenue every weekday morning to get on I-5.

The strawberry fields projects are included in Caltrans’ $6.5 billion package of rail, freeway and lagoon improvements for the I-5 corridor. Funding is coming from a mix of federal and state sources.

Construction on the park and ride will begin late 2016 and likely take three to four years, Jacobo said. But the freeway access ramp would come in the second phase of the corridor program, 2020 to 2030.

The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy will manage the agricultural portion and the open space, and work is scheduled to start there once the park and ride is finished, according to Jacobo.

Doug Gibson, conservancy executive director and principal scientist, said planning is in the early stages, but the group is looking at restoring the old barn on the agricultural portion of the land, along with starting a community garden, a native plant nursery and more there.

“The goal is to provide ecological and community benefits,” Gibson said.

The conservancy also wants to restore native plants in the open space area.

“We want to control invasive plants and start restoring some of those areas to enhance them for resident and migratory species.”

The strawberry fields and the San Elijo Lagoon are separated only by Manchester Avenue. Given the proximity, Gibson said the conservancy overseeing the land is a natural extension of its mission to protect the lagoon.

Gibson added he’s glad that Caltrans shrunk the size of the park and ride in response to community concerns, allowing more open space and agriculture.

Caltrans bought the land from Alvin Tom. The Yasuda Family Trust owns a smaller chunk of the strawberry fields and thus far has not expressed interest in selling, Jacobo said. He added that Caltrans is still interested in buying the property down the line, because the freeway access ramp is slated to go on a sliver of it.

Attempts to reach Tom and representatives from Yasuda Family Trust for comment were unsuccessful.

The first phase of the I-5 corridor plan, 2016 to 2020, notably includes adding one express lane in each direction between Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach and Highway 78 in Oceanside. The Manchester Avenue freeway access ramp would funnel car poolers, buses and solo drivers willing to pay a fee onto the express lanes.

Other phase one projects in Encinitas: lengthening the San Elijo highway bridge to accommodate express lanes and improve tidal flow; soundwalls to mitigate noise; and a new MacKinnon Avenue overpass.

The Encinitas City Council in 2014 backed the access ramp as well as the park and ride, but only after Caltrans committed to preserving some of the strawberry fields for agriculture and open space.

Councilmembers at that time acknowledged residents want the strawberry fields to stay put. But they noted the land was grandfathered in as residential zoning, so the property owners could hypothetically develop the property. Thus, they stated, Caltrans is offering a chance to preserve a significant part of the site.

Jacobo said the strawberry fields purchase included two existing cell towers on the property, which Caltrans will remove or relocate in order to move forward with project plans. He stated Caltrans will hold meetings to let the community know what’s happening once the various projects are closer to breaking ground.

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