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Coastal Commission threatens to stop railroad fence in Del Mar

A Coaster train heads north along the bluffs in Del Mar where North County Transit District plans to install a fence.
A Coaster train heads north along the bluffs in Del Mar on Oct. 12, 2021, where North County Transit District plans to install a fence along the tracks.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Transit District updates appeal to federal Surface Transportation Board

The California Coastal Commission has written a “pre-cease and desist” letter to the North County Transit District, threatening enforcement if the district proceeds with installing a fence along the railroad tracks on the Del Mar bluffs.

“These enforcement actions are in response to the NCTD’s representations that it intends to commence the construction of a large-scale fencing plan along the Del Mar bluffs without first obtaining a (coastal development permit),” states the March 3 letter from commission Executive Director John Ainsworth.

Building the fence without the development permit would violate the state Coastal Act and could bring unspecified administrative and civil penalties for the district, the letter states. Also, the commission could order the district to remove the fence and restore the property to its previous condition.

Del Mar residents and elected officials have been fighting the fence proposal for years. They say any barrier would restrict coastal access, impair ocean views, and contribute to erosion on the fragile seaside cliffs. Transit officials say the the fence is essential to stop trespassing and prevent deaths on the tracks.

NCTD responded to the commission’s letter in a March 4 update of the petition it filed Aug. 28, 2020, with the federal Surface Transportation Board. The petition asks the federal agency to grant the district sole authority over projects needed to safeguard the tracks in Del Mar.

“NCTD cannot in good faith further delay the safety fencing project and risk any additional unnecessary loss of life or injuries on its watch,” states the letter from the district’s attorney, Daniel Elliott of the GKG Law firm in Washington, D.C.

“In addition to helping prevent these devastating accidents involving trespassers, these safety fencing projects help to lessen rail service delays, traumatizing of rail employees, and railroad damage,” the letter states.

“Despite the clear danger of this rail line, NCTD is faced with elected officials from the city of Del Mar and (the California Coastal) commission staff and legal representatives who disregard the fact that it is illegal for the public to trespass on these rail tracks to reach the beach,” it states.

NCTD announced in 2016 that trespassing on the tracks was increasing and that violators could be subject to $500 fines and up to six months in jail. However, the trespassing law is rarely if ever enforced.

In October 2020 the district released a risk reduction analysis report that identified areas in Oceanside, Encinitas and Del Mar where trespassing most frequently occurred.

In Del Mar, the report recommended a 6-foot-tall, chain-link fence be installed on both sides of the railroad right-of-way from the city’s only legal crossing at Coast Boulevard south to the North Torrey Pines Bridge, about 1.7 miles. At the time, the district said it would complete the project by the end of 2020.

Elected officials in Oceanside and Encinitas negotiated minor changes to the fencing plan, but agreed to the installation. Del Mar has been unable to reach any agreement with the district and continues to oppose the project.

During the 16 months that the district has been negotiating with Del Mar, there have been 1,828 incidents, including one fatality, involving trespassers on the rail line in the city, according to the district’s most recent update. A typical incident is when a train horn is sounded to alert someone on the tracks.

From June 2016 through June 2021, there have been six deaths and three serious injuries on the tracks in Del Mar. And on March 2, 2022, a person fell from the cliff above the tracks and had to be rescued by first responders in an area where the fence is to be installed on the upper bluff, according to the district’s update to the Surface Transportation Board.

The Transportation Board is similar to a court, spokesman Michael Booth said in February. He declined to release any details of NCTD’s petition.

“There is no statutory deadline for an STB decision,” Booth said. “Each case has its own complexity, so there are no comparisons. The board prefers that parties work out their own differences before requiring STB intervention.”

The NCTD board of directors voted on Jan. 20 to proceed with the Del Mar fence project. The board also gave the city until Feb. 28, after it missed a previous Dec. 31 deadline, to agree to a modified plan to build a shorter, more visually attractive fence that would have required the city to accept liability for some of the changes.

The Del Mar City Council voted 3-2 on Feb. 28 to reject the district’s last offer. As a result, the proposed modifications are off the table.

Mayor Dwight Worden and Councilmember Dave Druker favored accepting the deal, saying there is a good chance the fence will be built no matter what and that the city would be better off with the shorter one. But the council majority opposed the agreement in hopes that the city would get no fence at all.

The district’s long-term plan is to reroute the tracks off the bluffs to an inland tunnel beneath Del Mar, but that solution will cost at least $4 billion and take a decade or more to accomplish.


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