Plans in motion for nature preserve at Solana Beach’s northern ‘gateway’

The first of two approvals has come on the permit needed to begin work that will over the next few years transform 3.4 acres on Highway 101—the long-disputed “gateway” parcel at Solana Beach’s northern edge—from an abandoned gas station teeming with invasive plants into an ecological oasis whose backstory is at the heart of city history.

The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy got a unanimous go-ahead from the city council on Feb. 28 for the permit needed to build an observation deck, donor monument and educational kiosk within a 2,080-foot network of trails on the property, which is now known as Harbaugh Seaside Trails.

No lighting, restrooms or parking are included in the designs. A 780-foot trail extension will head south out of Harbaugh and connect with the Coastal Rail Trail, creating an unbroken chain through Solana Beach and into the San Elijo reserve’s seven miles of trails.

The picturesque spot, poised atop a gently sloping mesa with panoramic views across San Elijo Lagoon and into Cardiff, had been the object of developers’ desires dating back to the middle of last century, when the lagoon was being eyed for a luxury marina with 750 homes.

Plans for an eight-story hotel emerged in the early 1980s, prompting neighbors and activists to realize they needed to seize control over land-use decisions. The city incorporated in 1986 and squashed the proposed hotel. Nearly two decades later, many of the same voices fought off a new proposal to turn what was then known as Gateway Park into a complex of hotel rooms, condominiums and a restaurant.

Former Mayor Tom Golich recalled last week that when he joined the city council in 1998, a group of Canadian investors were in town trying to make sense of why the ideally situated property had never been developed.

“Fortunately, the citizens of Solana Beach threw enough rubbish in the way to stop anybody from doing anything,” Golich said. “It’s ended up being a great project … and if there ever was a slam dunk of doing something in the city of Solana Beach, this is it.”

The activists’ crowning moment came in December 2011, when the conservancy borrowed $3.75 million and put it toward buying the parcel. The ensuing campaign to pay the conservancy back drew some 1,200 donations, from school children who emptied out their piggy banks to a $1.15 million grant from the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation, for whom the land is now named.

Those donors take top billing in Harbaugh’s construction plan. The centerpiece of Rich Risner’s vision is a circular, waist-high plaza ringed with donor tiles and benches designed by Del Mar artist Betsy Schulz. A handful of donor tiles are available.

Construction of the monument will begin once the project wins its expected approval from the California Coastal Commission, which could come as early as May. Solana Beach will be a co-applicant because the final $1 million needed to repay the conservancy came through a Caltrans grant to the city as mitigation for double-tracking the railroad.

“We’re pretty set to go with starting the actual work as soon as we get the Coastal Commission’s approval,” said Jennifer Bright, the conservancy’s director of development.

The monument is expected to take nine months to finish, Bright said. Work on the trail system will have to wait more than a year before getting underway. Funding is still needed for the habitat restoration, which will divide the land into quadrants focused on different ecological systems—maritime scrub in the southern quadrant, maritime chaparral in the east, maritime succulent in the northeast and coastal dune in the northwest.

Building the trails is contingent on Caltrans’ work on the railroad.

“They’re not supposed to finish up their project until 2020, but I don’t think we’re going to wait quite that long to start the trails,” Bright said. “I would hope that we would be able to have a groundbreaking on the trail component by the end of 2019, beginning of 2020.”

For a closer look at Harbaugh’s designs, go to www.sanelijo.org/seasidetrails.

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