Following a recent crackdown on people crossing the railroad tracks through the coastal corridor, dozens of community members demanded access to the beach and bluffs during the Sept. 6 Del Mar City Council meeting.
"The bluff is an integral part to the coastal beauty of Del Mar," said Del Mar resident Frank Stonebanks, who was cited on Aug. 6 for crossing the tracks. "Hundreds of people use the bluffs everyday. We have to collectively figure out a solution because it's not just going to stop."
North County Transit District stepped up enforcement at the start of August against people who cross or walk along the tracks through the coastal corridor. Violators can be fined up to $500 or face six months in jail.
"The feds require us to mitigate any safety issues or hazards that occur on our railroad, and trespassing and railroad strikes are the No. 1 railroad-related reason for fatalities," said Dahvia Lynch, chief planning officer at NCTD.
According to NCTD, the enhanced enforcement is to bring awareness to accidents and fatalities that occur on the tracks. There have been 19 fatalities and 15 injuries in the last two years.
Other impacts of trespassing, Lynch said, include increased erosion of the bluffs, damage to railroad infrastructure and equipment due to emergency stops, and passenger delays.
"This is not a new issue," said former Mayor Dave Druker, who is currently running for council. He recalled how he and his daughter collected signatures from citizens to prevent NCTD from ticketing people in 1995. "NCTD does own the right-of-way. Crossing the tracks is trespassing. Yet we’ve had access for over 100 years."
"This is not a new problem," agreed Councilman Don Mosier, who serves on the NCTD Board of Directors. "There are a number of potential solutions we need to study and implement."
In the last month, concerned citizens formed a Facebook group called "Citizens for Access to Del Mar Beach / Bluffs / Trails" that currently has about 160 members. The group has joined forces with similar groups in other coastal cities and national nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
In addition, the group submitted a petition with about 500 signatures to the city, calling for officers to cease issuing tickets when there is no train in sight, and for Del Mar and NCTD to work together and establish two or more designated sites to cross between Fourth Street and 15th Street, and work toward removing trains from the bluff within a decade.
The group plans to also present its petition to the NCTD board at the board's next meeting on Sept. 15.
"I don't think it's wise to condone trespassing or to condone unsafe pedestrian movement," Councilman Al Corti said. "I don't see any reason we need to have misdemeanors or have to go overboard on the ticketing."
Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott said he was "disappointed" that NCTD has taken this approach.
"It's not going to work," he said.
"I would ask that they start a moratorium on ticketing people across the tracks," said Sinnott, causing applause from the crowd. "I think this can be done with the idea that Del Mar and NCTD will begin a partnership to start working on some immediate safety solutions that can be worked on jointly with other cities as well, but especially with our concerns on the bluffs."
The council appointed Sinnott and Councilman Dwight Worden to a subcommittee to work with the city manager, NCTD and San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). By the end of November, the subcommittee plans to report back to the full council with recommendations for immediate, short-term solutions that would allow people to walk safely and legally in or next to the railroad right-of-way.
Sinnott also requested that the NCTD representative bring back a response on his request for a moratorium on ticketing.
"Working together as a group, I think we can solve it without the hammer approach," Sinnott said.