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Coastal Commission denies request to leave the boardwalk where it is

DEL MAR — Unless someone can find a way to make up for the loss of 1 acre of wetlands, a popular boardwalk that runs along the San Dieguito River will likely be moved once an adjacent overflow parking lot used by the Del Mar Fairgrounds is restored to wetlands.

With a 5-5 vote at its March 11 meeting, the California Coastal Commission denied a request from the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority to delete a section of a development permit that identifies the 1,200-foot structure as interim.

The boardwalk was built in 2007 by volunteers at a cost of about $354,000. Most of the money came from San Dieguito River Valley Coastal Conservancy and transportation grants.

It is a rare — some have said unprecedented — occasion when Del Mar, Solana Beach, the 22nd District Agricultural Association, the JPA and the conservancy are all on the same side of an argument.

But such is the case with the boardwalk.

Everyone associated with those agencies, as well as most residents, want the structure to remain in place.

The walkway gives river park visitors an up-close look at the San Dieguito Lagoon.

It is educational and promotes conservancy among users, including children. People walk or bike on it, promoting exercise.

But according to the staff report and based on the findings of an ecologist, the heavy use is one reason it should be relocated closer to Jimmy Durante Boulevard when the ongoing restoration of the parking lot is completed.

If allowed to remain in its current location, the boardwalk would “introduce significant human interaction that could further degrade the biological productivity within the restoration site,” the staff report states.

“A public access path traversing through the middle of a sensitive habitat area also has the potential to disturb wetland species and would likely increase the amount of refuse that enters the restoration area,” the report also states.

According to the staff report, the boardwalk also occupies land within the restoration site that could become an additional 1 acre of wetland habitat.

Another concern is that the boardwalk could negatively affect the water flow or deteriorate once water is flowing beneath it.

The commission “typically does not endorse public access through restoration sites,” the staff report states. “Public access paths are usually placed at the perimeter of restoration projects in order to facilitate maximum wetland habitat restoration and tidal circulation.”

The commission received more than two dozen emails urging the panel to approve the JPA’s request and two supporting relocation. Several people also spoke at the meeting to try to convince the commissioners to leave the boardwalk where it is.

“If you decide to remove the boardwalk people will walk along the berm and that will create more of a negative impact,” said Jacqueline Winterer, past president of Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley.

“The JPA is your partner in creating wetlands in the lagoon,” former JPA deputy director Susan Carter said. “We designed the boardwalk to be as least impactful as possible. … Digging it up would cause disruption.”

Commissioner Greg Cox, who made a motion to approve the JPA request, said although the boardwalk is identified as interim, the permit states it “may need to be changed,” not that it must or shall be relocated.

“It’s an important part of what I think we should be promoting, and that is education,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to have the same experience if you’re walking just below Jimmy Durante.”

Commissioner Martha McClure said although the loss of an acre of wetlands is significant, the educational impact of the boardwalk is also significant.

“I would encourage people to say, ‘Let’s leave it where it is,’” she said.

The panel first voted to continue the hearing to allow the agencies involved to provide mitigation for the loss of the 1 acre of wetlands. The typical mitigation ratio for wetlands is 4:1, meaning 4 acres elsewhere would have to be restored.

That failed 5-5 before the vote was taken to approve the request. When that failed, Cox tried to make another motion for a continuance but the commission’s attorney said it would be “out of order.”

Chairman Steve Kinsey, who voted to deny the request, said the agency could reapply with mitigation recommendations.

“We appreciate Commissioner Greg Cox, the only commissioner to visit the boardwalk, for his valiant attempt to preserve the boardwalk in its current position,” JPA Chairman and Del Mar City Councilman Don Mosier said.

“The JPA has helped restore over 150 acres of wetland in the San Dieguito Lagoon area, and a split decision over the projected loss of 1 acre of wetland occupied by the boardwalk fails to recognize our past partnership with the Coastal Commission in preserving coastal habitat,” he added.

“Given the close vote, we will explore all options for a revised proposal that would allow retention of the boardwalk with additional mitigation for any perceived negative impacts on wetland restoration,” Mosier said.

“Ours is a feeling of frustration and disappointment,” 22nd DAA board President Fred Schenk said. “We were proud to speak with one voice along with the River Park and the city of Solana Beach in support of this asset.”

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