Bid to Blaze New Trails Heats Up
Hop in the car and you can get anywhere in the county on a superhighway. Hop on a horse or a bike and you can’t get there from here.
It is a tale of woe told countywide by those who prefer to trot, pedal or jog rather than to rev up their engines in pursuit of a bit of recreation.
A bicyclist wanting to wend his or her way through the greening countryside may happen on a stretch of wide paved bike paths flanking the roadway lanes, then turn a corner to discover nothing but cinders and dust.
In the same manner, a horseman or a hiker may find the path barred by barbed wire and “Positively No Trespassing” signs because the property owner is outside the pale of a community plan that calls for trails.
Kay Balian, a horsewoman, biker and hiker, knows the problem and is working on the solution with not-so-gentle nudging of the county Board of Supervisors to back an effort to link up diverse snippets of riding and hiking trails with regional arteries.
To get from Penasquitos Canyon in the city of San Diego to a fine set of trails developed in the city of Poway is legally impossible at present because there is no public trail link between the two popular sites. Even the California Riding and Hiking Trail that traverses the eastern part of the county from north to south is barricaded in places by private property owners who have blocked access to a section of the trail across their land, despite state law to the contrary.
“It just takes a few feet or even a few inches to block a regional trails system,” Balian said. There are a wealth of hiking, biking and riding trails in local communities but no way to get from one to another. That’s the problem, and a coalition of trail users may be the answer, Balian explained.
But Balian’s opponents argue that the trails proposal amounts to little more than an attempt to grab land by an elite group of horse owners.
“I’ve been fighting this since 1972 or l974,” said Barbara Hutchinson, a tax protester and head of W.H.O.A.--Worried Homeowners, Organized and Angry. “Property rights are property rights. If those horse owners want trails, they should buy them.”
What incensed Hutchinson was a recent decision by the county Board of Supervisors to seek funds in the upcoming county budget to map present trails and determine where the regional links should be.
She opposes this small step because she fears it will lead to an ordinance requiring mandatory dedication of trail routes countywide. Already, a handful of communities have added trail maps to their community plans and some, like Valley Center, have proposed mandatory dedication in order to join the present trails into a cohesive system, Hutchinson pointed out.
“That M word-- mandatory-- is what we are fighting,” she said. “If people want to give land to the horse people, that’s OK with us. But this should be voluntary.”
Jack Redfern, a county public works department employee, who has become the county’s unofficial trails coordinator for the past 14 years, said that newcomers see the answer to trail links as simple: Just follow a stream bed or powerline easement for a few miles until a new set of local trails begin.
The owners of private property already must provide easements for the power company, Redfern said, and the power company is willing to let the county use the easements for the trails. The problem, Redfern said, is that because those are easements given only for power lines, it is up to the individual property owners to allow or forbid other uses of the easements.
In the same manner, property owners along stream beds must give permission before riders can use the banks of a river or creek, he explained.
So the issue comes down to a clash between property rights and recreational needs.
“Our opponents always claim that we are taking away property from people to serve an elite group of horse owners,” Balian said. “Actually, we are only seeking a regional trails map, a line showing where future trails should be linked up.”
What the trails group seeks is a county policy that would require developers to include trails in their developments, where suitable, as a condition of development, much as they now provide parkland and other amenities, Redfern explained.
Balian, who lives on a remote mountain acreage east of Jamul, began her campaign early this year to persuade the county Board of Supervisors that there were a lot more voters who want a system of countywide trails than there are opponents to a regional trails’ system.
Using state recreation figures, she estimates there are more than 1.6 million San Diego County residents who ride horses, hike, bike, jog, or just walk for exercise. There are probably more than that who would use trails throughout the county if there were ways to get to them without climbing fences or cutting across lawns, she figures.
“We just like to get out for a walk somewhere where we’re not surrounded by concrete,” explained Tamara Mercado, a San Diegan who was one of 4,000 signers of Balian’s Save Our Trails petition. Mercado, her husband, and her children, ages 7 and 11, hike through San Clemente Canyon in Clairemont when they get the yen for greenery, but she admits that it would be nice if there were other places as accessible.
Tina Moser, an Ocean Beach resident, bikes to work in downtown San Diego almost every day of the week except for the rainy ones. She didn’t sign Balian’s petition but says she would have if she had been approached.
“Each day the traffic gets worse, and I’ve had a few scrapes riding on the streets, even where there are bike lanes,” Moser said. “Some day my luck is going to run out. I would buy a car and rent a parking space downtown if I had the money.”
It is people like Moser and Mercado whom Balian is recruiting under her banner of the San Diego Trails Task Force, not just the horse riders who backed the fight for trails in the past.
Mary Shepardson, a Poway horsewoman and former city councilwoman, has been fighting the trails’ battle for the past two decades. Now she has retired from the front lines to enjoy the Poway trails system and her “city in the country,” which has the best local trails system of any community in the county, maintained by the city with funds from a tiny portion of the city budget and from landscape and open space assessment districts which cover the entire city.
Shepardson remembers the first trails battle in the mid-l970s, when mainly horse riding groups persuaded county supervisors to establish a countywide trails map and a policy which required all major subdivisions to include trail connections through the property in the same way as parks, school sites and roads were made conditions of development.
“The Farm Bureau was active in opposing it,” Shepardson said of that earlier trails system. “They claimed that horses spread root rot, although I never heard any evidence to back that up. And they claimed that riders went in and stole their oranges and avocados.”
Even with the vocal opposition of agricultural interests and property rights interests headed by tax protester Hutchinson, a county trails policy was set and more than 60 miles of trails were added to the system during the next seven years.
“Then, (former) Supervisor Paul Fordham led what was practically a religious crusade to ‘stop the land grab,’ ” Shepardson said. “The county even allowed landowners who had dedicated trail easements to get them back.”
By 1982, trail advocates were back to a voluntary program, in which a subdivision developer could dedicate trails if he wished, but could not be forced to provide a right-of-way for riders and hikers through his property.
A $10 annual horse tax was enacted countywide to raise funds for acquisition and maintenance of trails, but few owners of the county’s estimated 38,000 horses complied.
“Would you pay a tax if you knew it wasn’t enforced and that there were no penalties?” asked Balian. “Horse people also resented the fact that they were the only ones asked to pay for trails when everyone uses them.”
Balian’s idea is to combine all trail users into a single group--the Trails Task Force--and use the political power of numbers against the tenacious opposition of property-rights groups such as W.H.O.A.
Behind the trails’ group are such varied organizations as the Sierra Club, Boy and Girl Scouts, riding, hiking and biking groups, physicians who believe that exercise is a better prescription than medication, and even a few developers, who see the prestige of having access to trails from their developments.
The opposition includes libertarians, who champion individual and property rights, agricultural interests and a lot of people like Frances Snider of Fallbrook.
Snider has nothing against trails or even against trail users, but she despairs about “the unconscionable amount of money” spent on what she calls frivolous things like riding trails and bike lanes when there isn’t enough tax money to pay for the necessities.
During the trail wars of the l970s, Snider heard the developer of a Vista country club call the system of trails he was forced to include in his development “a colossal mess.”
“So I called him up before this recent hearing before the (county) board (on May 2) and asked him how he felt about his trails system now,” Snider said, “and he still says it’s a colossal mess.”
Under the earlier county trails plan, she said, developers were forced to put in trails and to maintain them, “and that’s nothing short of the taking of private property,” Snider said. “That’s unconstitutional, that’s against the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“If people want to give their land, that’s fine with me. But if the trails people want that land, they should have to pay for it. They don’t have a nickel or a drop of sweat invested in this.”
Hutchinson, speaking for W.H.O.A., said the group, composed of rural property owners, will fight any attempt to reimpose trail dedication requirements countywide. When Supervisor Susan Golding assured trail opponents that small property owners would not be included in the trails dedication plan, Hutchinson vowed to fight the requirement “of one ounce of dirt” to the regional trail system.
“If they want trails, let them pay for them like we all pay for roads,” Hutchinson said. “And what does she (Golding) mean by exempting small property owners? What is a small property owner? You either own property or you don’t. You can’t be a little bit pregnant.”
Balian counters that it already is a well-established practice for developers to be required to dedicate park land, open space and other amenities. Why not trails, too, she figures, so that the open land could be used? A voluntary system of trails dedication does not work, she said, pointing out that only 2 1/2 miles of trails have been added to the system since the trails dedication ordinance was rescinded eight years ago.
Balian sees hope for a regional trails network in the efforts of San Dieguito River Valley Regional Open Space Park plan for a linear park from the ocean at Del Mar to the mountains near Julian, in a similar river valley open space plan in the Sweetwater River Valley, in plans under study to extend the Los Penasquitos Reserve trails eastward to Poway and ultimately further still to Ramona and the mountains beyond.
But, to fill in all the gaps and create a truly regional system, the county Board of Supervisors must add trails to the conditions required for development in the unincorporated areas of the county, she said.
Valley Center’s community planners recently adopted a trails map for their area with trail easements required when the property owners decide to develop, she pointed out, “which means that the Valley Center people have more guts than the supervisors,” Balian said.
When opponents point out that there may be links in the trail system that aren’t ripe for development for the next 50 years or so, Balian nods in agreement and adds: “We can wait. It’s a legacy for generations to come.”