Pacific Highlands Ranch Community Park struggles with upkeep

A leaning tree in the PHR Community Park.
(Karen Billing)

The Pacific Highlands Recreation Group held a retrospective May 2 on their four-year-old Pacific Highlands Ranch Community Park, including an afternoon park walk-through.

The park on Village Center Loop Road is home to the modern rec center, a dog park, playgrounds, the popular pump track and a well-used walk/run/stroll path around the perimeter.

But the sights that day weren’t all pleasant: currently the five-acre turf field is shut down, the basketball courts are closed and many, many trees are leaning and falling down, made more noticeable by the bright orange netting surrounding their bases.

With the retrospective, chair of the Pacific Highlands Ranch Recreation Group Karen Dubey wanted to discuss the lessons learned from this four-year-old park so the city doesn’t make the same mistakes in future parks; and talk about what can be done to ensure that the jewel of Pacific Highlands Ranch can once again shine.

Like many parks in San Diego, due to the rains there is a lot of weeds and overgrowth. Some weeding was done over the weekend—but before that, the weeds had grown so tall you could not read the park sign, Dubey said. The discovery garden at the park looks a bit more like a discovery jungle.

Overall there is a lack of city staff for maintenance, which is also an issue with the park’s low-water landscaping which needs a lot of work to sustain, Dubey said.

Overgrowth in the discovery garden area of the park.
(Karen Billing)

The plants that are supposed to be in the park are struggling, most notably are the trees. The whole park is full of palo verdes trees, about 50 of them. When thriving and in bloom, the trees are filled with a brilliant yellow flower. The trees are native to Sonoran deserts, and Dubey said while they look amazing in Phoenix, they haven’t worked here. In the park they hardly ever flower.

“We don’t have a single one that is standing up on its own,” Dubey said. The trees were planted in decomposed granite (DG) and whenever it gets wet, the DG liquefies and water can’t soak through—it becomes like quicksand and every tree falls over. Thousands of dollars have been spent trying to save the trees—across the park, leaning trees are being propped up and surrounded by that orange netting.

“We have very little money to spend in this park yet all of it is trying to stake up these trees unsuccessfully,” Dubey said. If the trees are unable to stand on their own, she suggested the they pull them out and eventually replace them with a bigger, leafier tree that can offer shade—the park can get very hot in the summer.

Over the last four years, the field has been plagued with drainage issues and it was uneven. For it to completely fixed and reseeded, the field has been closed and will be closed through at least September.

The closed basketball courts.
(Karen Billing)

There was no money to fix the field—in fact there wasn’t even money for a fence to protect the field while it was under repair. Funds were donated by the Carmel Valley Recreation Center Advisory Group for the field repair and the group also donated the fencing. The Carmel Valley Recreation Council was a 501c3 and when the city dissolved rec councils in 2017 and they became an advisory group, they kept the 501c3 and unofficially renamed it the 92130 Foundation. Through the foundation, they can accept donations with the idea that funds are used for projects in the community, like PHR Park.

Shutting down any park field is difficult and no one wants to do it—not only can they not be enjoyed by the public but they can’t generate money from user groups.

Marilee Pacelli, a member of both the Carmel Valley and PHR Recreation Groups, said moving forward the city might consider using artificial turf in their parks. It’s more expensive initially but from the standpoint of maintenance it may be better--safer than rocks, dirt and gopher holes: “Everyone has the same problem of overuse,” Pacelli said.

The well-loved basketball courts have also been closed for the last six months.

“This is a real shame because it didn’t matter what time I came to the park, people were playing on it,” Dubey said.

The closed fields at PHR Community Park.
(Karen Billing)

Dubey said the problem seems to be that the courts were not constructed correctly—the paint wore off and was causing slippage that was a hazard for players. which lead to their closure. There doesn’t appear to be a plan or funds to fix the courts at this time.

“How are we serving the community, how are we serving the taxpayers by having a park that’s not kept up?” Dubey asked. “Why are we building more parks if we don’t have the money to keep up the parks we already have?”

At the meeting, the recreation group said they have not heard any update on their newest park, Solterra Vista, next to the new Pacific Sky School. The new park will include playgrounds, two lit tennis courts, two lit pickleball courts and a full-size basketball court around a 1.8-acre multi-purpose field. The new park was supposed to open by late 2023 but construction has not yet begun.

The recreation group was looking for any positive solution to keep the park looking nice. To help with weeding and maintenance, group members suggested the possibility for community groups like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts adopt an area and come in once a month for weeding or clean-up. In neighboring Solana Ranch Park, residents have successfully organized community park cleanups that could work similarly in this park.

Those interested in lending a hand, can email or contact the PHR Rec Center at (858) 538-8184.

One of many falling trees in the park.
(Karen Billing)