‘Fence fighters’ in Del Mar urge their neighbors to oppose NCTD fencing plan

A Coaster train on the bluffs in Del Mar.
A Coaster train on the bluffs in Del Mar.

A group of Del Mar residents who call themselves the “fence fighters” have gathered nearly 2,000 signatures in an online petition against a plan to install fencing along the train tracks on the south bluff.

North County Transit District created the fencing plan to reduce deaths and injuries among trespassers. But opponents don’t think there’s enough cause for concern to add a fence, which they fear would damage the bluff without a significant improvement on safety.

“I wish they would listen to us. It’s only like 10 more years,” said Del Mar resident Camilla Rang, referring to the approximate timeline to move the tracks off the bluff due to erosion. “Let’s try to do the best we can and not destroy nature and not destroy the public access to the beach.”

The city of Del Mar has been working with NCTD and the Coastal Commission on the fencing proposal, hoping to reach a compromise. If no agreement is reached by Dec. 31, the NCTD board decided Nov. 18 that it will renew a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board that will give it sole authority to proceed with the fencing.

Last year, when NCTD originally filed the petition, the city of Del Mar and Coastal Commission expressed their opposition in writing to the Surface Transportation Board.

According to the NCTD petition, there have been 112 fatalities along the Coaster rail line since 2010, including eight in Del Mar since 2014. It also said “trespassers lead to potential liability and/or financial risks to NCTD and taxpayers,” and that trespassers can cause delays of up to three hours before normal operations are restored.

NCTD is already in the middle of a lawsuit filed by the family of 19-year-old Poway resident Javad Hedayatzadeh, who died in 2016 after a BNSF Railway train passing on the bluff in Del Mar, just north of 13th Street, struck his head. The accident took place on an NCTD-owned right of way. A trial is scheduled for December.

In 2018, NCTD and BNSF asked the court for a summary judgement, in which the court issues a ruling without a full trial, but was denied.

NCTD also asked the court for a pre-trial declaration that it had no responsibility to add fencing or barriers at the location of the accident. But the court denied that request as well, ruling that NCTD “has not met its burden of showing that it had no duty to install fencing, barriers, or additional warnings.”

The original NCTD petition to the surface transportation board followed about two years later, and Del Mar residents have been speaking out ever since. During an Oct. 18 City Council meeting. NCTD officials presented a scaled-down 4-foot-tall design that they said was more “community-sensitive” (compared to the original 6-foot-tall design) but most of the community wasn’t swayed.

“Of course it’s better, but neither of the options are good,” said Rang, who has been trying to get her neighbors to visit delmarbluff.com and join the opposition.

Council members shared their own reservations about the fencing proposal during that meeting.

“I don’t feel you’ve made a compelling case yet that it’s necessary,” Deputy Mayor Dwight Worden said to NCTD officials, adding that there is a need for safety improvements.

City Councilman Dave Druker added that bluff access is “sacrosanct” in Del Mar.

Opponents of the fence have also mentioned that it would have a relatively short-term purpose. Local leaders are beginning to map out a plan to move the rail off the eroding bluff and into an inland tunnel. A San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) regional transportation plan expects to have that tunnel built in 2035.

John Stahl, who has lived in Del Mar for 27 years, said he thinks the City Council hasn’t pushed back hard enough, which is why he began urging his neighbors to speak directly to the agencies that have a say in the matter.

“We’re taking our message right to SANDAG, the Coastal Commission and North County Transit,” he said.

Encinitas Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz, who serves as chair of the NCTD board of directors, said he could not comment on the fencing proposal because of the pending lawsuit by the Hedayatzadeh family.

Asked for comment about the opposition from Del Mar residents, NCTD shared a statement from Executive Director Matthew O. Tucker that had previously been given to the Union-Tribune.

“Throughout this process we’ve worked constructively and collaboratively with the Coastal Commission and the City of Del Mar to develop a community-sensitive solution for the bluffs that promotes rail safety and ensures reliability, while providing safe and legal beach access,” Tucker said. “Now is the time for the City of Del Mar and the California Coastal Commission to do their part to achieve a successful outcome that precludes the need for regulatory action.”