Del Mar Mesa management plan moves closer to reopening trails

After eight long years in the forging, the San Diego Planning Commission unanimously approved the Del Mar Mesa Preserve’s Resource Management Plan on March 26. The plan now moves on to City Council for approval, getting one step closer to trails being once again legally open in Del Mar Mesa.

Resident Matt Bartelt said he used to take his children out into the preserve when they were small and they’ve become teenagers as the process has continued. He said he’s very enthusiastic about the plan moving forward so that his family can enjoy it.

“Without a well-managed plan, we will continue to have human encroachment tramping into areas that are environmentally sensitive,” Bartelt said.

As Ben Stone, a board member of the San Diego Mountain Biking Association noted, the plan represents a balance of protecting the most sensitive areas while allowing public access.

Trails have been closed in the preserve since 2008 as the comprehensive plan has been in the works. More than 18 meetings of public outreach were held, and the most controversial part of the plan was the trail maps. The maps involved the closing of paths that were redundant or dangerous, and ones that were deemed to cross environmentally sensitive areas.

One of the biggest sticking points from user groups regarding the plan’s trail map is the lack of an east-west connection. Requests were made from various planning groups such as Del Mar Mesa, Carmel Valley and the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizens Advisory Group that the connection be provided to make the plan viable.

City Planner Bernie Turgeon said that after much review, the trail alignment was deemed infeasible because of conflicts with California Fish and Wildlife code and potential biological impacts to the area’s vernal pools.

While the east-west connection is not feasible at the time, Turgeon said it might be considered in the future.

“The plan’s not perfect. The east-west connection is still a hole, but we need to get this done,” said Rod Simmons, who serves on the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizens Advisory Committee.

During public comment, Frank Landis, the California Native Plant Society’s conservation committee chairman, spoke to the planning commission about how very special the preserve is.

He said the preserve has the largest group of vernal pools remaining on city land, numerous endangered and threatened plant and animal species, and the largest old-growth patch of chaparral left in coastal Southern California.

“This is the last place that looks like this. Everything else is built or burned,” he said.

Landis described the preserve as the “wild twin of Torrey Pines,” where scrub oaks, one of the rarest oaks in California that generally grow 12 feet tall outside the preserve, routinely grow to 20 feet tall. A few reach 40 feet in Del Mar Mesa — creating the preserve’s beloved Tunnel trails under the oaks.

Landis said putting the management plan in place is critical to protect this community resource. He’s heard reports of kids lighting bonfires in the high-fire risk area, which trail users have seen — but didn’t want to report because they were technically trespassing themselves.

Both Landis and Simmons said the plan’s timing is especially important, as major housing and commercial developments are being considered at the edge of the preserve, most notably Merge 56.

“Getting this established is a good achievement in terms of stipulating what happens in those areas,” Simmons said.

Merge 56 is at the end of Camino Del Sur just past its intersection with SR-56. It proposes 525,000 square feet of commercial buildings and 242 multi-family residences.

As part of the project, Carmel Mountain Road is proposed to be widened and to connect with Camino Del Sur, and Camino Del Sur would be widened to a four- to six-lane road.

There are concerns that the project’s footprint could sever preserve trails.

Gary Levitt, the developer of Merge 56, has been a strong advocate for trail connectivity through the preserve, both as a resident and as a member of the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board. He has said that the trail connections for the Merge 56 project couldn’t be incorporated into their plans until the city approved the management plan.

Besides the plan approval’s impact on development, having a plan in place will also allow long-delayed Chaparral Lands Conservancy restoration projects to get off the ground in the preserve.

Commissioner James Whalen said he understood the importance of the plan, as the preserve is one of San Diego’s single most biologically sensitive areas, and he doesn’t want to see it overrun with trails.

He said staff has done an amazing job of putting the plan together and hopes something can be done about the desired east-west link in the future. He noted that the Fish and Wildlife department, which owns the land with the desired east-west connection, does not permit bicycles.

Whalen said the biggest issue for him is how access is going to be enforced.

“This jewel is going to be trashed if it’s not taken care of, and yet all the users have the right to be there,” he said.

Deputy Director Chris Zirkle from the park and recreation department said Fish and Wildlife wardens will be the primary enforcement, and City Council recently approved the use of overtime police officers to help patrol. They also have a “robust” ranger staff.

Zirkle said the city had installed motion-activated cameras to enable them to provide patrols where they are needed, but a few of the cameras have been damaged.

“The hope is that legal use will deter illegal usage,” Zirkle said, noting that once the trails are legally open, there will be more eyes on the preserve.