Caltrans in escrow to buy part of Manchester Ave. strawberry fields

Caltrans officials announced Sept. 16 the agency is in escrow to purchase 20 of the 30-acre strawberry fields on Manchester Avenue, just east of Interstate 5.

Plans call for a 5-acre Park and Ride, with five acres to be set aside for agriculture and 10 acres for open space, Caltrans representatives told the Encinitas City Council during an update on freeway, rail and lagoon infrastructure slated for Encinitas and the region.

A community garden, education center and plant nurseries could potentially sprout on the agricultural portion, though talks are ongoing, said Allan Kosup, Caltrans project director for the North Coast Corridor.

Documents show a 150-space Park and Ride, which aims to promote carpooling, as well as biking. It would connect with a planned bike path running parallel to the freeway and have bike lockers.

“It’s not your traditional blacktop Park and Ride,” Kosup said.

The projects are part of Caltrans’ $6.5 billion package of rail, freeway and lagoon improvements for the I-5 corridor. They’re scheduled to be completed during phase one of plans, 2016 to 2020.

Caltrans did not give a timeline for various projects during that span.

Because of funding constraints, a freeway underpass that would go next to the Park and Ride was pushed back to “phase 2” of Caltrans plans, so it’s still 10 or 15 years away, according to Kosup.

The underpass, called a direct-access ramp (DAR), is designed to alleviate congestion for cars trying to enter I-5 from Manchester Avenue. It would funnel car poolers, buses and solo drivers willing to pay a fee directly into planned I-5 express lanes, and those driving in the express lanes could exit via the DAR.

Caltrans reached an agreement to buy the 20 acres from Tom Alvin for an amount that will be disclosed when escrow closes. Kosup stated Caltrans should own the property by the end of the year.

The owner of the other 10 acres of the strawberry fields gave no indication of being a willing seller, Kosup said.

Given the owner’s reluctance to sell and because the DAR has been delayed to phase 2, Kosup said Caltrans is in no hurry to buy the 10 acres.

Councilmembers asked questions, with only Councilman Tony Kranz weighing in on the update of what’s happening on Manchester Avenue, saying it didn’t break his heart that the DAR was pushed back.

Kranz added the DAR previously had the potential to increase public transit, alluding to rapid buses that would have complemented the DAR but were scrapped.

“Deferring it to down the road is probably going to give us more time to get a better public transit system in place,” Kranz said.

Council last year came out in support of the DAR and Park and Ride, on the condition that Caltrans preserve some of the strawberry fields for agriculture or open space.

Councilmembers at that time said they realize residents want all of the 30-acre strawberry fields to stay as agriculture. However, they said the grandfathered-in strawberry fields are zoned as residential, so nothing is stopping the property owners from developing the land.

Funding for the $6.5 billion Caltrans package will be drawn from state and federal sources.

Additional Encinitas projects are included in the Caltrans plan, from soundwalls to redoing the 60-year-old wooden San Elijo Lagoon rail bridge. The council gave direction to have city staff bring back a quarterly progress report.

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