Torrey Hills planning board hears update on long-delayed Carmel Valley enhancement project


By Karen Billing

The Torrey Hills Community Planning Board reviewed design plans Jan. 21 for a proposed enhancement project on a dirt lot under SDG&E power lines on East Ocean Air Drive. In the past, the much-delayed community improvement has been called a greenbelt or a park but board member Mark Lee coined it “The Never-Being-Built Park.”

City staff and consultants presented plans for the enhancement and reported that they could start construction in March 2015. The estimated construction cost would be $231,000, plus soft costs for the environmental process and a site development permit, which can be as much as $100,000. Potentially the enhancement could end up costing the entire amount in the Torrey Hills maintenance assessment district (MAD) budget: $441,000.

City staff would like to bring the project and full budget back before the board in February for approval, but some rumblings from board members seemed to indicate that they would no longer like to move forward with the project at that price tag.

Ali Darvishi, supervising project manager and deputy city engineer, said the project was approved and put into the MAD’s capital improvement program budget back in 2011. The city had to undergo biological surveys and reports due to the vernal pools on the site before starting the implementation and design process.

Darvishi said engineers just received the project in late August 2013 and it has been put on the fast track as requested by Councilmember Sherri Lightner. They hired consultant Estrada Land Planning to design an enhancement that mimicked a plan once designed by community members.

Joe Esposido, of Estrada Land Planning, went over the proposed plans, which are very simple so as to maintain access for SDG&E and protect the sensitive land that is within the Multiple Habitat Protection Area. The plans include a 5-foot wide decomposed granite trail that meanders through the site, a small trellis with benches near the view of the Los Penasquitos Canyon, native plant materials and shrubs, such as grasses and wildflowers.

No permanent irrigation is allowed because of the sensitive habitat but temporary irrigation would be included to get the planting started.

“I’m shocked to be honest with you, about what’s coming across the table here,” said vice chair Brad Fagan, noting that he has personally spent more than four years on the project trying to get the city to pay attention. He said he didn’t understand why it has taken so long and why they would now have to wait another year to begin construction.

“Is it normal to take four years?” asked Lee and when Darvishi started to reply that sometimes it does and longer, Lee added: “The fact that the answer isn’t no is astonishing to me.”

Darvishi said it’s simply the city’s process and getting the project done in less time would not be feasible even if the board tried to do it privately. He said the city had to undergo the environmental studies because of the vernal pools, has to go through a competitive bid process for the construction, and follow the required municipal and city codes, all of which takes time.

“I don’t have a magic wand…a lot gets put into the mix and that’s why projects take so long and cost a little bit more to build,” Darvishi said. “I feel your frustration. I know you’ve been waiting a long time and it seems like no one is listening or paying attention.”

Leana Shakarian, a representative for Councilmember Lightner, said Lightner’s office understands the concerns about the length of time the project is taking and they will work with city staff to get the park constructed as soon as possible should the board vote to approve the plans.