Fate of boardwalk near San Dieguito River under debate

On April 7, 2007, a “mammoth work party” of 50 Del Mar Rotary Club volunteers and a few experienced contractors laid down the planks for a 1,200-foot-long boardwalk at the southern edge of the Del Mar Fairgrounds property, along the San Dieguito River.

“It was a sight to behold,” said Bob Fuchs, one of the Rotarians who took part in the one-day project to complete the boardwalk. The idea was to create a path where people could stroll near the adjacent wetlands without physically disturbing them.

“We did a real credible job,” Fuchs said.

Eight years later, the staff of the California Coastal Commission wants to dismantle the boardwalk and move it to another location, a recommendation opposed by a number of local entities that in the past have sparred over environmental issues, including the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds, the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy and the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach.

“No one wants the boardwalk to be moved,” said David Watson, a member of the 22nd DAA board of directors. “It’s silly to move something everyone likes and enjoys, which has been there for such a long time.”

Watson estimated that moving the boardwalk would cost $150,000. While he said the 22nd DAA will ultimately follow the Coastal Commission’s decision on where the boardwalk should be located, he said his agency and other groups prefer to leave it where it is.

“It’s a community asset. It’s for nature study, and it’s educating people about the value of the wetlands,” said Shawna Anderson, principal planner with the River Park JPA.

Coastal Commission staff are recommending that the boardwalk be moved because it runs through a dirt lot that is being restored to wetlands. When the permit for the boardwalk was originally approved in 2005, the lot was being used for overflow parking during the annual San Diego County Fair and horse racing meet at the fairgrounds.

The original permit language contained a clause that said the boardwalk was an interim use, and it might need to be relocated when the wetlands restoration plans were final.

A Coastal Commission staff report said that if the boardwalk is removed from its location within the restoration area, an additional 1.5 acres of wetlands could be restored, and the move would also enhance “hydrologic connectivity,” or water flow, on the site.

If allowed to remain where it is, the report said, the boardwalk would “introduce significant human interaction that could further degrade the biological productivity within the restoration site.”

Staff is therefore recommending that the boardwalk be moved to the northern edge of the restoration site, near Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

“We’re saying you can have the best of both worlds,” said Alex Llerandi, a planner with the Coastal Commission. By moving the boardwalk, he said, the wetlands restoration would be enhanced, and the boardwalk will still border the wetlands, with educational signage and viewpoints.

“It was foreseen (the boardwalk) would have to move at some point, subject to whatever that final restoration plan was,” said Llerandi.

But Trish Boaz, executive director of the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, disagreed with the commission staff’s conclusions.

“They’re saying it would impede the success of the wetlands restoration project. But there’s no science backing that up,” she said.

The boardwalk enjoys strong popular support, said Boaz, evidenced by the number of people who use it, and the more than 500 donors who have each spent $100 to have nameplates installed along the edge of the walkway.

The boardwalk was funded by $354,000 in grants from the state Coastal Conservancy and the federal Transportation Enhancement Activities program, plus the Rotarians’ volunteer labor, said Anderson. Money from the sale of name plates is used for ongoing maintenance.

Anderson and Boaz said the boardwalk can’t simply be moved to the northern edge of the restoration area, because that spot is already earmarked for a future extension of the Coast to Crest trail, which when completed will run 70 miles from Julian to the beach at Del Mar.

The boardwalk is for pedestrians only, while the trail is planned as multi-use, for hikers, bikers and possibly equestrians. Since there is no other easily identifiable location where the boardwalk could be moved, said Anderson, the commission staff recommendation would essentially result in the boardwalk’s elimination.

Therefore, the River Park JPA is asking the Coastal Commission to remove the language from the boardwalk permit that identifies it as an interim use, which would allow the boardwalk to stay where it is. Commission staff recommends denial of the JPA request. The commission will consider the issue at its meeting March 11-13 in San Diego.

The JPA and conservancy plan to rally their supporters to appear at the March hearing.

“We’re saying the benefits (of leaving the boardwalk where it is) outweigh the impact,” Anderson said.