Boardwalk backers plan March 21 rally: ‘We’re not ready to give up’

Mothers with strollers, joggers and a host of others regularly use the boardwalk, noted County Supervisor Greg Cox, a Coastal Commission member.
Mothers with strollers, joggers and a host of others regularly use the boardwalk, noted County Supervisor Greg Cox, a Coastal Commission member.
( / Courtesy)

Supporters of a popular wooden boardwalk on the south side of the Del Mar Fairgrounds are planning a hike and rally this Saturday, March 21, after a vote by the California Coastal Commission that could require the removal of the structure.

At its March 11 meeting, the Coastal Commission had a tie vote, 5-5, on a request by the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority to allow the boardwalk to remain in its location next to the San Dieguito River. The tie vote meant the JPA’s request was denied.

The 1,200-foot-long boardwalk, made of planks on a raised framework, was built in 2007. It was constructed with $354,000 in grants, as well as hundreds of volunteer hours from Rotarians and other community members. Removing it will cost an estimated $150,000.

The boardwalk 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 where the boardwalk is located into wetlands. As part of the restoration project, the Coastal Commission staff asked that the boardwalk be moved next to Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

The JPA, San Dieguito River Conservancy and the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach contend that the boardwalk cannot be moved next to the road, because that is where an extension of the Coast-to-Crest Trail, slated to run some 70 miles from Julian to the beach at Del Mar, is planned. The groups say the two trails are separate and distinct and cannot be placed in the same location.

The boardwalk “really is a completely different sort of trail,” intended for pedestrians, while the Coast-to-Crest trail will be compacted decomposed granite and designed for multiple users, from hikers to mountain bikers to horseback riders, said Shawna Anderson, principal planner with the River Park JPA.

Anderson said the JPA will work with the conservancy, the 22nd DAA, and Del Mar officials to see whether there are options to keep the boardwalk where it is, despite last week’s deadlocked vote by the Coastal Commission.

“We intend to explore other options with the 22nd DAA and Del Mar,” Anderson said. “We just need to strategize and see if we can come up with some options that we can consider for the boardwalk. We’re not ready to give up.”

Saturday’s 10 a.m. rally planned by the conservancy is another part of the effort to save the boardwalk in its present location. Several hundred people, including County Supervisor Dave Roberts and possibly other local elected officials, will hike a short distance to the boardwalk, then pose for aerial photos taken by a drone, as well as hear speakers, said conservancy executive director Trish Boaz.

Coastal Commission staff contends that if the boardwalk is moved, an additional acre of wetlands can be restored. They also said the boardwalk in its current location would impede water flow in the restored wetlands.

Until now, the dirt lot where the boardwalk is located has been used by the fairgrounds for overflow parking for major events such as the San Diego County Fair and annual horse racing meets.

At the Commission meeting, Coastal Commissioner and County Supervisor Greg Cox spearheaded the effort to preserve the boardwalk.

Cox noted that mothers with strollers, joggers and a host of others regularly use the boardwalk. “It’s a very well-used interpretive trail,” he said. “It’s an important part of what I think we should be promoting, which is education.”

“The taxpayers are appreciating this. The educational impact of the boardwalk is significant enough, I would say leave it where it is,” said Commissioner Martha McClure.

Other commissioners, however, were convinced by Commission staff that the boardwalk, left where it is, could hamper the success of the wetland restoration.

“In truth, it is not the least harmful” alternative, said Commissioner Dayna Bochco of leaving the boardwalk where it is.

Bochco and other commissioners said that if the boardwalk is allowed to remain, the JPA should be required to provide environmental mitigation, such as preserving wetlands in another location.

Anderson, of the JPA, noted during her testimony that a restoration plan prepared by a biologist for the 22nd DAA included the boardwalk in its present location, with channels beneath the boardwalk to facilitate water flow.

During his testimony, John Dixon, an ecologist with the Coastal Commission, conceded that the restoration with the boardwalk in place could work, although it would not be the best configuration.

“If this is designed correctly, it could be made to work with one or two inlets,” Dixon said.

Anderson said after the hearing that mitigation would probably be expensive. “We don’t have money sitting in the bank for mitigation,” she said.

David Watson, a 22nd DAA board member, said his agency agrees with other local entities that the boardwalk should remain where it is. But he said in his opinion, not speaking for the full board, if the Coastal Commission orders the removal of the boardwalk, the 22nd DAA most likely will have to comply.

“That seems to be the less expensive option,” said Watson, adding, “I prefer to leave the boardwalk where it is, because that’s what the community wants and I don’t agree with the environmental assessments that it’s a problem.”

Another speaker at the Commission hearing, Don Mosier, a Del Mar councilman and chairman of the River Park JPA board, said the benefits of public access outweigh potential effects on the restoration area.

“I think we’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good,” Mosier said.