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Tug of War in Encinitas Over a Botanical Gem

Times Staff Writer

It is a sylvan paradise in the midst of a fast-growing city, a 29-acre island of pristine greenery surrounded by a homogenous sea of houses and stucco shopping centers.

For more than three decades, Quail Botanical Gardens has prospered as the community of Encinitas grew from a rural coastal hamlet to a thriving municipality. Through it all, the verdant collection of rare flora has been meticulously maintained by a dedicated crew of San Diego County parks employees and an energetic band of volunteers.

Now, however, leaders of the newly incorporated city of Encinitas would like to assume control of the jewel in their midst. The result has been a sort of tug of war over who will guide the park through the years to come.

While Encinitas officials insist that they want to preserve the gardens as a prime botanical treasure, leaders of the 800-member foundation that has played a pivotal role in the park’s development remain concerned that the city might dramatically alter Quail Gardens, making it a grass-and-picnic-table sort of recreational area.

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“My grandmother always said the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know,” said Mariette Pinchart, president of the Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation. “That’s sort of it for us. We know the county and the problems we face with them. But, with the city, we could face a whole new batch of problems.”

City’s Argument

Encinitas leaders argue that such concerns are unfounded. The botanical gardens are among the most important features of their new city, they say, a lush reserve that deserves to be enhanced, not squandered.

“Rumors and misinformation are being spread around,” Encinitas Mayor Anne Omsted said. “It seems like the foundation thinks we’re a bunch of barbarian hordes who would come in and trample their plants. . . . We certainly don’t have any mad, passionate desire to alter what’s there. We can see the special significance of the park.”

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Indeed, Quail Gardens is the only botanical park in San Diego County. A unique parcel straddling a gently sloping hillside east of Interstate 5, it features a wide array of foliage--ferns and palms, bamboo and cactus, native plants and newcomers.

The park was developed in the 1930s by a Midwest transplant named Ruth Baird Larabee, who established an estate on the property, then set about gathering exotic plants from South America and other tropical lands.

In 1957, Larabee turned the land over to the county, which has operated it ever since with the help of the foundation, a tireless group that raises countless dollars to finance a slew of capital improvements as well as general maintenance.

A third leg in the tripod supporting the gardens is the Quail Docent Society, a hardy band of about 150 volunteers who put in more than 1,000 hours a month to bolster the park’s labor force, performing tasks that range from pulling weeds to manning the gift and plant shop near the entrance to the garden.

“They do very good work,” said Steve Hendrix, the park supervisor who oversees a staff of three county employees. “They do just about everything but irrigation work and major trimming and planting.”

No one has ever gotten an exact count, but authorities estimate that the park contains more than 2,000 types of plants. The varying species combine to form a mosaic of enrapturing greenery.

Winding dirt trails, all carefully raked and neatly roped off, lead a visitor past the plants and trees, which are identified by small plastic placards. A man-made waterfall runs down the spine of the park, while special misting devices keep the tropical foliage happy.

House Serves as Headquarters

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Elsewhere, a trim garden of herbs stretches out from Larabee’s old house, which now serves as the park’s headquarters. Native trees such as the Torrey pine and gnarled exotics like the cork oak tower overhead. Foxes and rabbits are sometimes seen in the park, as well as various species of lizards and migratory birds.

“It’s a quiet place to sit down, to meditate,” said Gilbert Voss, the garden’s curator. “It’s a great place for passive recreational enjoyment.”

The park is best known for its collections of bamboo, palms and cycads, a primitive plant that includes the popular sago palm. Quail Gardens also has a bamboo quarantine station, one of only a handful in the United States used for importing the plant.

Park volunteers regularly lead tours of the spread, giving groups of students or visitors a quick tutorial on the wide variety of plants while discussing the precarious problem of our vanishing forests and endangered plant species. Last year, more than 120,000 people visited the gardens, up from about 40,000 in 1980.

“Like most botanical gardens, like museums in general, Quail Gardens is always changing,” noted Voss, who has helped run the operation for 15 years. “We’re always refining and getting better.”

Budget Belt Tightens

A year ago, however, the stewards of the park were worried about simply keeping the place open. At the time, county officials were feeling the budget belt tighten, and Quail Gardens was among the county parks being eyed for cutbacks or possible closure.

Troubled by the situation, the county Board of Supervisors asked the Parks Department to determine if Encinitas would be willing to help finance Quail Gardens. (When the city incorporated in 1986, the park was specifically kept under county control because it was deemed to have a regional benefit.)

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Slowly but surely, those talks evolved into discussions centering on the tantalizing possibility that the city might take over full control of the park. As city officials billed it, Encinitas could provide far more fiscal support for the park, offering up the sort of revenue projections the county could not match.

Although some leaders of the volunteer foundation seemed open to the idea at first, they soon began to hear rumors they found most unsettling.

“They began to hear rumblings about the city perhaps using portions of the gardens for uses that were not purely botanical,” recalled Alex Martinez, assistant county parks director. “Since the foundation views the purpose of Quail Gardens as purely botanical, that talk frightened them to a certain extent.”

In particular, foundation leaders were troubled by news that the city wanted to use five fallow acres on the park’s western edge for more active recreational uses, perhaps even as a site for a heritage park of antique buildings.

The idea irked foundation members, who have long planned an extension of the botanical gardens onto the five acres.

The group has already financed a $16,000 preliminary master plan and expects to spend nearly $50,000 soon to perform a full study. Tentative plans call for the acreage to include terraced gardens, a plaza graced by a picturesque fountain, maintenance and propagation yards, and an extensive man-made stream and pond.

Figuring they had heard enough, the foundation board sent a Jan. 30 letter to the city and county asking that the takeover talks be halted. In the month since, discussions between the two governmental bodies have ceased.

“Right now, things are at a standstill,” Martinez said. “We’re amenable to hearing whatever kind of proposal the city wants to put forward. If it’s a joint-type funding, that’s fine. At this point, we’re just waiting for a reaction.”

Letter to Foundation

Recently, Encinitas City Manager Warren Shafer dispatched a letter to the foundation reiterating the city’s interest to begin running Quail Gardens, emphasizing that the council has no intention of changing the botanical focus of the park.

“The council recognizes that, next to surfing and the poinsettia, the thing Encinitas is known for is Quail Botanical Gardens,” Shafer said in an interview. “They see it as a valuable community asset, and they want to enhance that.”

Shafer acknowledged that there is a side benefit of the city assuming control of the gardens--it would add to the stock of park acreage in the city, increasing the chances that Encinitas could qualify under state law to begin charging higher developer fees. But he also noted that, even with Quail Gardens, the city is far from reaching the threshold where it can begin reaping those extra developer dollars.

“Right now, the ball is in the county’s court,” Shafer said. “The county is proud of Quail Gardens, quite deservedly. It’s their flagship operation. But you don’t have to be a financial genius to figure out that they’re still in financial trouble.”

Foundation officials like Pinchart, however, remain worried about the proposed city takeover. While the current city administration and council might be amenable to Quail Gardens’ remaining strictly a botanical treasure, future leaders may not be so predisposed, she suggested.

“It worries me a little bit that, with Encinitas, we might be playing a lot more politics,” she said. “Every year or two, we’d have a new mayor and whole new group of people to deal with. We might have to fight this battle over and over again.”


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