The city is planning to build a pathway to Encinitas Community Park through a Cardiff neighborhood on the southwest corner of the park, but some neighbors have publicly opposed the project and have threatened possible legal action should it move forward.
The city council on Oct. 11 approved — with council member Mark Muir dissenting and 16 public speakers sharing their opinions about — a $66,000 gate at the end of Starlight Drive, off Warwick Avenue, as part of a safe walking route to school between Ada Harris and Cardiff elementary schools.
But some neighbors at that meeting argued the gate would reduce privacy and safety for the five homes along Starlight Drive, which is privately owned, has no sidewalks and currently dead-ends with a wall that separates the street from the park.
Regan Schaar, a six-year resident whose home sits on the corner of Warwick and Starlight, said her house would essentially become a "fishbowl" that passerby could look into when they walk by.
Her son's bedroom is 18 feet from the proposed walkway, she said, adding concerns about possible homeless people who may live in the park and would have easier access to her home.
"My husband said our house would become like a line at Disneyland where people can walk by our house and look right in," Schaar said in an interview in the neighborhood following the meeting.
She also shared concerns that a public access road could diminish nearby property values.
Starlight Drive has two irrevocable offers of dedication that were made in the 1970s that would allow the city to take it over at any time to be dedicated as public right-of-way, should it be needed for public use.
Ron Ogata, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s, said he had heard neighbors came to an agreement with the city years ago that the area wouldn't be affected by traffic when the park was being considered. However, staff at the Oct. 11 meeting said no records indicating that information were found.
Neighbors also formed no-park and scaled-back park committees to show they were not in favor of a park impacting the area, Ogata said.
Schaar argued she believed the area wasn't a true "safe route" to school since there were hills on Warwick and Starlight that would affect accessibility for the disabled. The hills would also create blindspots for drivers who wouldn't see the children walking or biking by, she said.
She argued the pathway would also only save about two to four minutes for children traveling between the two schools.
"This isn't a safe route to school," Schaar said. "It's a path through a neighborhood with a gate. If that's what [the city] wanted it to be, that's what they should have said it was. There's no reason to put a path in this street. There's no reason to disrupt and make this ugly."
But Mayor Catherine Blakespear, in a phone conversation following the Oct. 11 meeting, said the project was originally suggested by the Cardiff School District — which would not build or fund the project — and the final decision was made by the city council.
"The school district’s (Safe Routes to School committee) originally suggested projects that they believed would have the highest impact for their students," she said. "The families that are unhappy about this wanted the school district to be able to pull the project back. I think they spent time advocating to the school district, but they're not the decision makers."
During the evaluation process, the city looked at several potential sites for the access gate. Access over Warwick Avenue to Mackinnon Avenue and a northerly terminus of Somerset Avenue to Encinitas Community Park were also considered before they were dismissed due to conflicts with the county on Mackinnon and "significant elevation change" on Somerset, according to a city staff report.
Starlight was the best option, staff concluded, because it was "relatively flat and the grade difference between Starlight Drive and the existing sidewalk on the park site is minimal."
"It was clear that the improvements that would have been needed for other spots had a much bigger footprint," Blakespear said. "This is a small gate that goes straight through into the park. The city thoroughly investigated all other options, and this was the best spot. ... It's the natural place where the gate would be placed in terms of its distance between the two existing entrances."
Schaar and Ogata said they were "flabbergasted" to learn a few days before the Oct. 11 meeting that the project was being voted on by the council, when they say they were told earlier this year by city representatives that the project would not continue to be considered.
Blakespear said projects like this help achieve the city’s goal of creating better biking and walking options for residents.
"We can do small things that make a big difference," she said. "This project is one of those things because it's a small walking path and it will connect people who currently don't have a pedestrian entrance into the Encinitas Community Park. The entire south side of the park is walled off. When you look at the area or walk around it, it's clear that having an entrance point for people to access the park will affect hundreds of people for the better."
Other residents at the Oct. 11 meeting also agreed with the council majority that the access point should be built to give more options to children biking and walking to school.
"When I went and looked at this from the park side and the Starlight side, there were some logs on the park side, which made it clear to me kids have already found a way into the park," said resident Judy Berlfein. "Lots of us grew up in a time when we could walk and bike to places, and that's becoming less and less true. The more opportunities we give to our kids to get out on their own, the better." About half of the 16 public speakers praised the project for providing an easier walking route, while the other half were opposed to the project.
Muir, the only council member to vote no on the project, said the city should keep its word to the neighbors that they would not build the pathway on Starlight.
"I value park access, but I also value an agreement," he said. "I think we made an agreement with the people there, and if we were to change that, for me, it would have to be for a safety issue. I don't see a safety issue. I see the contrary to that. An agreement is an agreement."
Staff said there were no records to indicate a written agreement with neighbors or references to any agreement within the environmental impact report.
Schaar, Ogata and other residents urged the council to consider tabling the agenda item for a later date, but Blakespear said the proposal was thoroughly vetted by staff and there was "no new information to get."
"The council has already met in closed session about this item," she said. "There were extensive safe routes to school meetings about this. There was a lot of involvement with the city staff in looking at our roads and talking to residents. There is no reason to delay things unnecessarily. ... I think there are a lot of projects that people are against when they're first proposed. Then, it goes in and people are happy with it. I understand that change is hard. We shouldn't delay decision-making because change is hard."
She added the other safe routes to school projects in the city’s other school districts have already been constructed and it’s time to finalize the Cardiff project.
Schaar said the neighbors, one of whom is an attorney, are considering legal action against the city should it pursue building the pathway and gate.
Blakespear, an attorney and Cardiff resident, argued the city is within its rights.
"I don't see any legal exposure here," she said. "This is a street that we have the right to put a path on, and this is our city park, and we have a right to put a gate into it. It benefits many local families."
At the end of the Oct. 11 meeting, Blakespear instructed city staff to work with the opposing residents to determine whether they would prefer that the city pave their short section of road and maintain it, or leave it as gravel and only maintain the path. The city staff has reached out to the two property owners most affected by the path, Blakespear said, but as of Oct. 24, Schaar said city staff has made no attempts to hear her ideas.