Happy trails: Del Mar Mesa plan finally receives City Council approval

Way back in September 2008, Carmel Mountain/Del Mar Mesa Preserve trail users crammed into a meeting room at Canyonside Recreation Center to hear the details of a new trail and resource management plan for the open space they enjoyed, some of the use on illegally forged trails on environmentally sensitive lands.

Mountain bikers wore helmets, people toted signs advocating for “Public Access” and users told tales of the desirable single-track trails that wove under the “Tunnels” created by a canopy of scrub oak trees.

In the seven long years that followed, the trails in the preserve were closed to public access as the plan was developed. The passion of the trail users never dulled for meeting after meeting, as they lobbied for as many legal trails as possible without compromising the integrity of the Multiple Species Conservation Program, which protects sensitive species in the preserve, such as the scrub oak and coast barrel cactus, and endangered species such as horned lizards and Western spadefoot toads.

After the city’s lengthy and “intensive” process of public outreach and working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the San Diego City Council was finally able to approve the resource management plan on Aug. 3, opening 7.9 miles of trails while restoring 13.3 miles of illegally created paths.

“I think this does deserve applause,” Council President Sherri Lightner said after the unanimous vote. “This is huge.”

Lightner requested an addition to the council’s resolution that ensures the plan takes effect immediately in areas outside the coastal zones, as she said it was important to get as much of it in place as soon as possible. The part of the plan that deals with areas within the coastal zones will not take effect until the California Coastal Commission certifies it.

“This plan has been in the works for a very, very, very long time. The environmental document even had to be redone, and this effort was started before I was first elected and was very contentious. I attended several meetings that were pretty inspiring, and I know staff worked through them,” Lightner said, thanking the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizens Advisory Committee for their support and the several community planning boards that participated, including Carmel Valley and Del Mar Mesa.

“The final plan is great, and I’m so happy it’s finally before us today. It will define trails for park users, restore habitat and enable the creation of an east-west trail if the regulatory agencies support it in the future.”

Chris Zirkle, the deputy director of open space division, said the city did an “exhaustive review” of the trails in an attempt to get public buy-in while still doing their primary job of preserving one of the most “rare and pristine examples of exceptional habitats in the city of San Diego,” valued by both environmentalists and recreational users.

“We cannot have as many trails as requested by trail users because of wildlife management concerns, but we do have a general consensus from the user groups of the trails plan, which has been the most contentious part of this planning process,” Zirkle said.

The largest point of contention is the 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 Committee that the connection be provided to make the plan viable.

Zirkle said U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife own the property, and both agencies declined to allow the city to draw a line on the map for trail purposes.

The plan does, however, include language that the connection can be added without an amendment, should the agencies give authority to cross state and federal land.

“While adoption of the plan is a great step forward after all these years, the success or failure of the trails plan is still dependent upon forging resolution with California Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure legal public access to the existing east-west corridor across the mesa,” said Rod Simmons, a representative of the San Diego Mountain Bike Association and member of the Black Mountain Citizens Advisory Committee and the Rancho Peñasquitos Community Planning Board.

Frank Landis, the California Native Plant Society’s conservation committee chair, spoke in support of the plan.

“I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s way more than good enough,” said Landis, who volunteers his time in the preserve to keep it clean. “I strongly believe that Del Mar Mesa needs to be opened up to the public.”

Landis described the preserve as one of the most distinctive habitats in Southern California. Scrub oaks, among the rarest oaks in California, generally grow 12 feet tall outside the preserve. But they routinely grow to reach 40 feet tall in Del Mar Mesa — creating the preserve’s beloved Tunnel trails under the oaks.

“This is worth protecting,” Landis said, showing the council photos of the tunnels. “It needs to be open so that we can show the local community what it has right at their heart, and teach them to care about it.”