The commissioners unanimously voted to deny an appeal filed by the Encinitas Residents Coalition and other Leucadia Streetscape project opponents, and they agreed to allow the city to amend a coastal planning document in order to make the roadway lane reduction legally possible.
"We saw this as an important milestone -- you have to get the Coastal Commission's approval to do a project like this," Mayor Catherine Blakespear said in a phone interview after the vote.
Blakespear said it was noteworthy that Commissioner Steve Padilla, a Chula Vista city councilman who originally asked his fellow state commissioners to look into the opponents' concerns, ultimately made the motion to support the city's plans. When he made his motion Thursday, Oct. 11, Padilla even mentioned how convincing the city's recent photographs of the existing poor conditions were, Blakespear said.
"He seemed to really get it, I thought," she said.
Christine Wagner, one of the leaders of the residents' coalition, couldn't be reached for comment after the commission hearing. During the Oct. 11 session, she told commissioners to think very carefully about whether to endorse the commission staff's recommendation, which called for denying the appeal and allowing the city to amend its planning document. She said the staff report was "severely flawed" and following its recommendations could result in legal action.
Opponents already have filed a lawsuit this year against the city of Encinitas over the Streetscape plans. They did so last spring, and their attorney said at the time that they were filing the paperwork, but holding off on any court activity while they awaited the outcome of their Coastal Commission appeal.
The Leucadia Streetscape plans call for overhauling a 2.5-mile stretch of Coast Highway from La Costa Avenue to A Street, giving the roadway six traffic circle roundabouts, as well as bike lanes, sidewalks and many beautification measures. To create space for these improvements, the city is proposing to eliminate one vehicle lane in each direction for much of the route.
The project's estimated to cost roughly $30 million, and city officials have said they expect to fund much of that expense through state and federal grants.
During the Oct. 11 hearing, Blakespear and Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath emphasized the project's benefits to pedestrians and cyclists, while Councilman Tony Kranz stressed how Streetscape would help solve safety concerns and parking issues in the adjacent railroad corridor, which is sometimes referred to as "Suicide Alley" because of the number of people who've been hit by trains there.
Mentioning that Leucadia's portion of Coast Highway hasn't experienced any significant improvements in decades, Blakespear showed photographs of people on bikes and in wheelchairs trying to navigate between cars and through dirt patches where there now are no sidewalks. The area's not currently meeting the state's coastal access goals, she stressed.
Boerner Horvath said she sees pedestrians regularly putting their lives in danger as they dash across the coastal highway from dirt parking areas on the east side of the road to the shops on the west side.
"These are real problems that effect real families," she said.
In addition to city officials, some 30 project proponents signed up to speak at the Oct. 11 hearing, including the executive director of the Leucadia 101 Main Street Association and a number of Coast Highway business owners.
While proponents emphasized that Streetscape would improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, opponents said the elimination of vehicle lanes and the addition of traffic roundabouts would vastly increase the area's already significant traffic congestion woes and slow emergency vehicle response times.
The residents' coalition president, Leah Bissonette, said the project benefitted a few privileged folks who like to bike at the expense of the general population, who use vehicles to get to work and shop. The commission ought to deny the city's planning amendment request because the city hasn't followed the commission's rules, its consultants are using "non-standard" measuring systems for assessing traffic impacts, and the changes will make it far more difficult for people to access the three beaches in the area.
"It establishes a bad precedent for the whole coast," she said.
The group's lawsuit against the city stated that the city's environmental documents failed to adequately address the project's likely impacts on air quality, noise and traffic conditions, among other things. It asked for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction or permanent injunction, and sought reimbursement of attorney's fees and any other relief the court "deems just and proper." The City Council voted in March to certify environmental documents for the project after hearing hours of public testimony
Encinitas wasn't the only city seeking permission from the state Coastal Commission Thursday, Oct. 11, to reduce vehicle lanes on a coastal route. Imperial Beach won unanimous commission approval that morning for plans to rework Imperial Beach Boulevard. Commissioners complimented Imperial Beach officials on those plans, saying they would improve coastal access, and the commissioners said they didn't agree with several residents who stated that the project would adversely impact vehicle traffic.
--Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune