Del Mar City Council urges more stringent review for proposed rail construction

By Claire Harlin

After a proposed plan to replace the nearly 100-year-old wooden bridge over the San Dieguito Lagoon, add a mile of new rail track and add train access to the Del Mar Fairgrounds was introduced for the first time last month, the Del Mar City Council is responding loudly and clearly — and it’s not all positive.

City officials on Feb. 4 signed off on sending a letter to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) urging that a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis be conducted, asking for coordination with other local projects, and raising concerns about potential impacts, such as light intrusion, noise and vibration, that could result from elevating the rail tracks. The council also voted to establish an ad-hoc committee of nearly a dozen members to meet regularly during the course of this project, which is expected to be completed by 2030, and share expertise, concerns and suggestions from the community. The council has requested SANDAG’s participation, and asked that the first meeting take place this spring.

“Construction impacts from a project of this magnitude could be substantial,” city officials wrote in the letter, signed by Mayor Terry Sinnott.

So far, SANDAG, in conjunction with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), is only requiring a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, and the City of Del Mar asked in its letter why a combination NEPA/CEQA is not being conducted, as the project “may have local or state funding for its implementation, could involve portions of state lands at the fairgrounds and is directly impacting the local jurisdiction.”

Councilman Al Corti, who recused himself from the issue and provided input as a resident living in close proximity to the proposed project, said he is concerned that SANDAG is not looking at all its options, which a CEQA review would require.

“They should at least study the alternatives,” he said. “And one of those alternatives would be to do nothing.” He also said SANDAG should have to mitigate any impacts of the project under CEQA as well.

While the project as proposed should improve tidal flow and improve the habitat of the San Dieguito River because the bridge spans will be wider and higher, there is also concern on the council that the project is so close to the protected lagoon.

“There’s an environmentally sensitive area to the north and also wetlands to the south,” said Councilman Don Mosier, adding that the project may involve constructing concrete walls, earthfills or other elements that could have a big impact.

The city also urged SANDAG to coordinate with other projects in the area in order to combine resources or do joint studies. For example, the city is initiating feasibility studies for the replacement of Camino del Mar Bridge west of the rail crossing, according to the letter. The San Dieguito River Park JPA is also planning trails along the banks of the river, and city officials want to ensure recent restoration efforts by Southern California Edison be protected.

The estimated $100 million project will add about a mile of new rail track through Del Mar and Solana Beach and include the construction of a special events platform that will provide train access to the Del Mar Fairgrounds certain times of the year. SANDAG and Caltrans have so far secured about $10 million from local TransNet taxes and Federal Railroad Administration funds designated for rail improvements. Technical and environmental studies are set to take place through 2014 and additional meetings will be held throughout 2013, according to SANDAG.