Compromise saves nearly half of San Dieguito River boardwalk

After negotiations with the California Coastal Commission, supporters of the popular boardwalk that runs along the San Dieguito River were able to save a portion of it.

The San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors voted 7-0 on April 8 to accept a compromise with the Coastal Commission, keeping a little less than half the structure in place.

“We were between a rock and a hard place,” said Del Mar Councilman Don Mosier, who serves as chairman of the JPA, the agency that oversees the San Dieguito River Park. “I think each side gave quite a bit, so it’s a compromise agreement that nobody likes, but I think it’s something that we could live with.”

With a 5-5 vote at its March 11 meeting, the Coastal Commission denied the JPA’s request to allow the boardwalk to remain in its location next to the river on the south side of the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

In an effort to save it, elected officials and community members gathered March 21 to protest the Coastal Commission’s decision — an event organized by the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to sustaining the natural resources of the San Dieguito watershed. More than 200 people from Del Mar, Solana Beach and surrounding communities participated in the rally and hiked the 1,200-foot-long boardwalk.

Built by volunteers in 2007, the boardwalk cost about $354,000, including a grant from the Coastal Conservancy, and sits on land owned by the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds.

In order to settle a longstanding dispute with state regulatory agencies, the 22nd DAA agreed to restore the dirt lot under the boardwalk to wetlands. The Coastal Commission wanted to remove the entire boardwalk as part of the wetlands restoration project.

Coastal Commission staff suggested relocating the boardwalk further north to the outer edge of the wetlands, along Jimmy Durante Boulevard, contending that the boardwalk impedes water flow in the restored wetlands. Relocating it would also allow an additional acre of wetlands to be restored, staff said.

Del Mar, Solana Beach, the 22nd DAA, the JPA and the conservancy argued for the structure to remain in place, as it gives visitors an up-close look at the lagoon, promotes conservation and encourages exercise.

Coastal Commission and JPA staff members, along with representatives from the 22nd DAA and the conservancy, met April 6 to try to craft a compromise, which was approved by JPA board during a special meeting April 8.

As part of the compromise, roughly 680 feet of the eastern portion of the boardwalk will be removed, while the remaining 520 feet will be retained. The portion that will stay in place will end with a viewing platform.

“The conservancy definitely supports the retention of the entire boardwalk,” said Trish Boaz, executive director of the conservancy. “We understand the position you’re in as well.”

If the JPA board had rejected the compromise, its only alternative would have been to petition the Coastal Commission to allow the entire boardwalk to remain in place.

The board was initially moving in that direction, having voted 6-1 on March 20 to resubmit its application because the Coastal Commission said mitigation for the one-acre loss of wetlands was not addressed. The request for a new hearing was due April 11.

After further research, however, board members said that another appeal was too risky.

“We want the boardwalk, but unfortunately, we lost the boardwalk,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts, who serves on the JPA board. “We can take this chance to roll the dice and lose it all, or we can compromise and come up with at least a piece of the boardwalk. I don’t like the odds.”

Other boardwalk supporters agreed.

Del Mar Councilman Dwight Worden, who volunteered to write the request on behalf of the JPA, said that of roughly 20 requests for reconsideration, the Coastal Commission had granted only two such cases in the past.

“It’s a very steep uphill climb to get a reconsideration out of them,“ said Worden, an attorney with a background in environmental, government and land-use law.

“In an imperfect world, it’s the best option you’ve got before you.”

If the JPA board had resubmitted its application and won, the agency would have had to mitigate the loss of the one acre of wetlands by funding the restoration of four acres of wetlands elsewhere.

According to the compromise, the JPA receives mitigation credit for the removal of the eastern portion of the boardwalk. No further mitigation is required.

Donor plaques from the portion to be removed will be relocated to the remaining western portion of the boardwalk. The saved portion of the structure will also connect with a new part of the Coast to Crest trail that will run along Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

“I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that the compromise is the best available option for this organization,” Mosier said at the end of the meeting. “This is not a happy occasion, but this is the decision that we need to make.”