ENCINITAS — In a stunning about face, Encinitas Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear announced Wednesday that she was withdrawing her support for the current Cardiff alignment of the Coastal Rail Trail that has been the focus of months of controversy.
Blakespear at the end of Wednesday’s City Council meeting requested that an item be put on a future council agenda to reconsider the council’s approval of the current configuration of the trail, which would run east of the railroad tracks adjacent to San Elijo Avenue between Chesterfield Avenue and downtown Encinitas.
Blakespear’s request also included a request to form a working group of community members that would work alongside local and regional officials to scrutinize any proposed rail trail alignment, and a request that council hold a meeting to discuss the city’s entire rail corridor. SANDAG has budgeted $5.1 million for the project, which will be paid for through TransNet, the county half-cent sales tax.
The San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, is the lead agency on the project, but Encinitas officials have discretion over the route it takes through the community, and would be responsible for construction and maintenance of the trail section.
Blakespear’s change now means that a majority of the council is opposed to the project’s current iteration, as Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir had already registered opposition to the project earlier this year.
Speaking to The Coast News in the days before the council meeting, Blakespear said her decision to withdraw her support was difficult, but in light of recent events that could impact the project, she had no choice.
“I have lost sleep over this,” Blakespear said Monday afternoon.
Gaspar agreed to work with City Manager Karen Brust to put the item on the agenda at the earliest time possible. Muir expressed concern that Blakespear’s request could cost SANDAG to lose out on a $1 million grant that would go towards the project.
“We will figure all of that out before we move forward,” Gaspar said.
Opponents of the rail trail began their opposition to the project in November when they launched the website that automatically sends a form letter to various city, county and regional officials, as well as members of the media, that detail the group’s opposition.
The group argues that the trail would trigger the installation of a fence along the entire stretch of the railroad adjacent to the trail, effectively blocking beach access for residents east of the tracks. It would also reduce public parking along the corridor, create traffic that could obstruct first responders, add lighting that could attract vagrants and gentrify the current trail that is currently made of dirt by replacing it with a concrete trail.
Opponents also argue that the public did not receive ample opportunity to weigh in on the project, and felt blindsided when the City Council approved the project in May, with few people in attendance.
Blakespear said she began to rethink her support after the Feb. 24 meeting, when city engineering staff told the council that a proposed at-grade crossing at Montgomery Avenue might not qualify for a “quiet zone” designation.
The Montgomery Avenue crossing was seen by supporters of the trail as an olive branch to the community, which would lose a popular, although technically illegal crossing point between homes along the east side of the tracks to the beach.
If the crossing doesn’t get the designation, then the city would have to potentially consider an underground crossing at the intersection, which would cost $7.5 million to $8 million, according to the estimates.
Blakespear said as the city awaits word from the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates quiet zones, as to whether Montgomery would qualify for the designation, they would still have to earmark the $7.5 million for the underground crossing, which would take money away from other important projects in the community.
“That was a deal breaker for me,” Blakespear said. “Access to the beach defines Cardiff, it is who we are. While I know it is technically illegal (to cross the tracks), recent data says that people are crossing safely, and we are not a police state, that’s not the historic feel of Cardiff.
“So to all of the sudden change the culture that defines this community without a plan to preserve beach access would be irresponsible.”
Blakespear referenced a recent report that showed an average of 40 people an hour cross the tracks near Montgomery, with the number of people peaking at 90 per hour on President’s Day weekend.
She was not alone in her reconsideration: supporters of the project, which formed the group Friends of the Rail Trail, recently announced on their blog that they were shifting the focus of their advocacy from the trail to “a clear and credible plan for the Montgomery crossing that ensures beach access.”
The group cited the Montgomery crossing issues as well as questions about the timing of the fence installation and the completion of a crossing as reasons for its decision.
Mike Verdu, who has spearheaded the pro-trail efforts, said he was disappointed in Blakespear’s decision, but acknowledged that the current plan has its flaws.
“As you can imagine, I’m disappointed…However, there are clearly some problems with the current trail and crossing projects,” Verdu said. “The two issues that our group has noted are noise mitigation for the at-grade crossing and potential staggered completion dates for the trail and crossing which could result in a gap in coastal access.
“I can only hope that Catherine’s move is the first step in a process that will address the problems and give us a new and better plan,” Verdu said.
Blakespear said the more she thought about the project, the fewer reasons she could come up with to support it. She was critical of SANDAG’s handling of the project and its perceived indifference to community concerns.
“I feel like if they had managed it differently, things would be different,” Blakespear said. “But you can’t get a straight answer from them, they won’t listen to the community, and while we keep hearing that the designs on the website are not the final product, we haven’t seen anything that would say otherwise.
“As it stands, the rail trail designs have the feel of a highway running through what is now a natural walking path, and I found myself saying, ‘Why I am I supporting this? I don’t believe in this.’” Blakespear said.
By withdrawing support, Blakespear said she hopes that the city can slow down the process and re-engage the public on the project more than was done leading up to the council’s decision in May.
“I think this project needs to be something that comes from our community, not something that an outside agency dictates to us,” she said. “This needs to be a context-specific trail.”
Opponents of the project praised Blakespear’s decision and said the next goal is to get the city to study the entire rail corridor, which the group has asked since the inception of its opposition.
“We are a beach town divided by a pair of railroad tracks,” said Julie Thunder, a member of the “No Rail Trail” group. “Other cities have solved this, and we’re not a poor city so I don’t think that it would be that hard for us to fix the problem.”
Blakespear’s change of heart comes as opponents of the project have intensified their efforts by targeting the trio who supported the project. Signs have popped up around Cardiff with the names of councilmembers Tony Kranz, Blakespear and Lisa Shaffer crossed out with a red line. She said while the community’s growing opposition to the project also played a role in her decision, it was not politically motivated.
“I think people want their elected officials to carefully weigh the pros and cons and have the flexibility to change course when the situation warrants it,” said Blakespear, who is running for mayor in November.
Kranz, who said he still supports the project, said he believes political pressure might have played a role in Blakespear’s decision.
“I understand the pressure she’s been under. She lives in Cardiff and walks her kids to school past yard signs that have her name with an ‘X’ over it,” Kranz said. “But I don’t share her doubts about our ability to get a trail that the community would be proud of and which would include a safe, legal trail crossing.”
Kranz said, however, he does support a compromise that has been discussed by North County Transit District officials, which would allow for the dirt path in Cardiff to remain and a paved path alongside San Elijo Avenue.
“I support exploring this option because it would accomplish the goal of having a safe place for the average person to walk or bike to the Town Center in Cardiff while preserving the open area people currently enjoy,” Kranz said.
This story has been updated since its original posting.