ENCINITAS — Sue Miller moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea six years ago, attracted by the tantalizingly short jaunt to the beach: five minutes, across a flat plain covered by blue chalk sticks, coastal sage and railroad tracks.
She soon found out that the short trip was technically illegal.
“I actually tried to run away from the deputy, but he tracked me down and gave me a warning,” said Miller, who was walking her dog Monday morning near the very same stretch of rail where she had her first encounter with the sheriff’s deputy. “I figured it wasn’t worth risking a $900 ticket.”
Miller represents the middle of the road of Cardiff, where a proposed walking and biking path approved in May that would run parallel to the tracks and trigger the installation of a fence along the entire stretch of Cardiff coastal plain has polarized the scenic coastal community.
Both sides have taken to the Internet to stake their positions.
On one side there are the opponents, which launched the website “NoRailTrail.com” two weeks ago. The site allows people to send form letters to more than a dozen elected officials, public employees and others associated with the Coastal Rail Trail project.
Opponents argue that the convenience of shaving time off their walk to the beach — the closest legal crossings are a mile in either direction — far outweighs the risk of getting caught by police who historically have infrequently enforced the track-crossing rule, or getting hit by an oncoming train.
Call it Cardiff’s time-honored tradition of civil disobedience, they said.
“Most of us know that you have a greater chance of getting struck crossing Coast Highway 101 than you do crossing the tracks,” said Joe Alkhas, the Cardiff resident behind the website. “We’ve made a decision that crossing the tracks is an acceptable risk.”
The fence, opponents of the plan say, symbolically and effectively divides Cardiff from the ocean that has attracted many of its residents.
“The fence will split our community in two,” Alkhas said.
On the other side of the trail and fence line debate, supporters of the city’s plans have started their own website, “yesrailtrail.com,” which provides information to counter that being distributed by opponents, which supporters said only represents a “vocal minority.”
“These very loud voices claim to represent a groundswell of opposition to the project. That isn’t right,” said Mike Verdu, the Cardiff resident behind the “yes” website. “They don’t represent the whole community, they are late to the party, and their arguments are inaccurate and one sided.”
Verdu said that the proposed San Elijo trail route would complement the flurry of projects in the works for the area, including the proposed double-rail tracking through Encinitas, the improvements at the Chesterfield Drive intersection with Coast Highway 101 and the tracks and a proposed rail crossing at Montgomery Avenue.
“The coordinated development happening here is a rare example of a tapestry of improvements that will level up the whole area,” Verdu said. “These projects all complement each other.”
The alternative — improving Coast Highway’s pedestrian and bicycle paths — isn’t nearly as compatible, Verdu said.
“We are so tired of dodging cars when we try to walk along San Elijo Avenue to Seaside Market or downtown Encinitas from our house… it’s aggravating and dangerous given that drivers who are parking are often paying more attention to traffic on San Elijo than pedestrians who are trying to walk through what is effectively their parking lot,” Verdu said. “We need the trail on the east side of the road. We’re thrilled about the plan and are counting the days until construction starts.”
One of the chief assertions the supporters are attempting to debunk is that the trail project alone would lead to the installation of the fence.
According to North County Transit District, which owns the rail and adjacent right-of-way, it has been the plan for years to fence off the rail line, but they have only been able to complete sections of fencing for various reasons, namely funding and cooperation with communities along the right of way.
But NCTD officials said the district’s policy that require fencing as a component of all major capital projects — such as the rail trail or double track — will mean that Encinitas will get fencing sooner than other segments of the rail corridor.
Additionally, NCTD officials say most importantly, Encinitas’ reputation of illegal crossings has put it in the crosshairs sooner than it would have otherwise.
Trains have struck people 12 times along Encinitas rails since 2012, 10 of which resulted in fatalities. Additionally, there have been 87 reported near misses during the same period, most of which involved pedestrians on the right of way.
“It will certainly be some time (well more than a decade) before the entire corridor is fenced. Unfortunately, the cities of Del Mar and Encinitas are hot spots for trespassing on the restricted right-of-way,” said Dahvia Lynch, the transit district’s chief planning officer. “Fatality and injury statistics demonstrate that the unprotected right-of-way along the San Diego subdivision rail corridor is a serious safety issue today.”
Miller, walking along the dirt path in Cardiff, said she understood both sides of the debate, but ultimately looks forward to the new trail.
“The fence is going to divide Cardiff,” she said. “But I can live with the trade-off.”