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Road Plans Stymied by by That ‘NIMBY’ Feeling

Times Staff Writer

NIMBY is an acronym that strikes terror in the hearts of bureaucrats everywhere because NIMBY spells trouble for their plans.

The “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” or NIMBY syndrome flowered in the 1960s, along with the environmentalist movement when average and not-so-average Californians realized that if the Golden State were going to remain untarnished, something had to be done to keep things the way they were. In fact, NIMBY purists could be considered selfish environmentalists, fighting to keep growth or high-rise buildings or eight-lane freeways out of their neighborhoods, but unconcerned if the urban sprawl happens elsewhere.

One of the first NIMBY victories recorded in San Diego County occurred in the late 1950s when state highway engineers first began plotting out routes for a freeway along the coast to replace U.S. 101 as the main San Diego-Los Angeles thoroughfare. While businessmen along the coast route applauded the prospect of a six- and eight-lane highway full of customers flowing past their stores, townsfolk revolted at the prospect of having their coastal communities sliced in half by a noisy ribbon of concrete.

After several years of argumentative public hearings and back room politicking, state highway officials had a change of heart, but not before Jacob Dekema, district highway director, was hung in effigy by irate coastal residents. A freeway route inland of the coastal communities from Oceanside to San Diego was adopted despite the added cost of acquiring 30 miles of new right-of-way for Interstate 5.

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More recently, Normal Heights-Kensington-City Heights residents have battled state and federal highway planners’ plans to turn 40th Street, now a two-lane surface street lined with 1930s-era bungalows, into an eight-lane segment of Interstate 15. NIMBY opposition coupled with political clout from San Diego City Council members, held the freeway proponents at bay for a decade before reaching a tentative agreement that would put the freeway underground for at least eight blocks of the route. Funding isn’t assured however.

In South Bay, Paul Clark has waged a one-man NIMBY war against the darling of the local transit scene, the San Diego Trolley, since it began operation five years ago. And, for good reason. It runs through his backyard.

Clark, who runs the Pepper Trees Farm Nursery School, didn’t mind the big red trolleys which sped past his home and day care center in San Ysidro at 7- to 10-minute intervals. What he didn’t like were the loud bells that signaled the approach of each and every trolley at the Iris Avenue crossing. It turned the nursery school’s nap time into a nightmare until Clark became a rampant NIMBY and stated his case repeatedly to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board and to every transit official that crossed his path.

Persistence paid off and the crossing signal bells were toned down from a strident clang to a moderate ding-dong. His NIMBY success launched him into the political arena where he was unsuccessful in a 21-candidate special election in 1983 to replace former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson after Wilson was elected to the U.S. Senate.

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In Escondido, civic groups halted extension of California 78 through the community eastward to Ramona in the 1960s. Today they are seeking, without too much success, to right their error. Traffic flowing off the busy east-west route onto surface streets has convinced local leaders that Escondido needs the route.

In Bonita, where alert activists kept California 54--the South Bay Freeway--from being routed up Sweetwater Road or Bonita Road through their horsy community, second-generation NIMBYs are wondering if the earlier victory was a hollow one. Now Sweetwater and Bonita roads have become high-speed surface streets to high-density inland development. They wonder if a controlled access freeway would have prevented surface street congestion.

NIMBY groups have shaped and misshaped highway routes throughout the county, from Rancho Santa Fe to Santee, Poway to Leucadia, Escondido to Otay Mesa, blocking some routes and bending others to bypass their particular backyards.

Rudy Massman, who retired as county transportation director last year, was an outspoken critic of NIMBY groups and complained that the county (and the city of San Diego) created its own worst enemies--community planning groups which put regional planners in straitjackets by becoming politically effective NIMBYs, effective local pockets of opposition to routing of regional highways through their neighborhoods.

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“It’s very tough for an elected official to make a decision in favor of a population that isn’t even here yet and against people who live here now,” Massman pointed out. Voters who oppose a project through their neighborhood or community are more likely to prevail over highway planners who are trying to map out a sensible regional road program to meet the needs of future residents in coming decades, Massman contended. He pointed a finger at Marjorie Gaines, mayor-elect of the newest San Diego County city, San Dieguito, as the No. 1 NIMBY for her battle against an east-west county highway--County Route 680.

Gaines, an Olivenhain resident, counters that County Route 680, which has been on county road plan maps for nearly two decades, is not a truly east-west road, but a northwest to southeast road connecting Interstate 15 on the east near Poway to Interstate 5 on the coast, slicing directly through Olivenhain and Leucadia.

“It cuts across established communities. It would create a division in those two communities that we do not want to happen,” Gaines countered.

“It’s not as if there were no alternatives (to County Route 680),” she said, pointing out that another proposed county highway--County Route 728--running northeast to southwest from Escondido to Del Mar would serve the same purpose of linking Interstate 15 and Interstate 5 without disturbing the San Dieguito hamlets of Olivenhain and Leucadia.

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Herman Rosenthal, county transportation planning chief, stresses that County Routes 728 and 680 both are needed links in the county’s highway system. He hastily adds that the county has no funds to build either.

The only way that new county highways are going to be built is for private interests to build them, Rosenthal said. That rules out most routes through already-developed communities, he explained, unless the residents want the highway and are willing to assess themselves to build it.

County road designers are now quietly at work rerouting the controversial County Route 680 around the boundaries of Mayor-elect Gaines’ new city of San Dieguito and heading it north toward Carlsbad where developers are more receptive to the need for regional roads.

Gaines is convinced that highways not only are disruptive, they are growth-inducing.

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“Wherever you have highways, you have higher density development,” she points out. In the North County area development will occur to the east and south of San Dieguito, she said, “and developers there and the county should put in roads in those areas” to connect with Interstate 5 and Interstate 15. “They will create the burden. Let them carry it.”

She dismisses the old “chicken or egg” argument about whether dense development or highways came first as a smoke screen disguising the real problem: overdevelopment. Inland developers have been allowed to overdevelop their land to densities that overtax local and regional roads, she said, and then blame the traffic congestion on areas that have development controls and oppose major roads through their communities.

“For somebody to blame traffic congestion on failure of the county to build one of those paper roads is ridiculous,” Gaines said. “That person should look beyond the end of his nose and realize that it is because of overdevelopment.

“No matter how many roads they build, or expand, there still will be traffic problems,” she said.

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