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Trailblazing at the Beach : Recreation: San Clemente acts to create pathway for joggers, skaters and bicyclists as well as safe access across railroad tracks to the sand.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day, this could be San Clemente’s version of the famed Laguna Beach and Venice boardwalks.

It’s an idea that has been kicked around this beach town at the southern tip of Orange County for 30 years, at least: Build a nearly four-mile-long recreational trail along the beach and railroad tracks at the foot of the coastal bluffs.

The trail would link North Beach, now home of the city’s new Metrolink station, to Cotton’s Point at the city’s southern border, the site of former President Richard Nixon’s Western White House.

The trail would provide a playground for bike riders, joggers, in-line skaters and strollers on the beachfront. But it could offer another important asset the city now lacks--safe access across railroad tracks to the sand.

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“This is an opportunity for us to accomplish two things at once,” said James S. Holloway, the city’s director of community development. “We can improve the safety for people down there all over the tracks and beaches and improve what can be a great recreational amenity.”

Two recent developments have helped push the $3-million project to the forefront. First, the city in August was awarded a $400,000 state grant administered by the Orange County Transportation Authority, and the city last week hired a consulting firm to come up with a design for the trail.

“We even got the council . . . to pass a resolution agreeing to apply for another grant,” said Jim Pechous, the associate city planner spearheading the long-awaited project. “We’re moving forward.”

Driving the project is the danger posed by railroad tracks that meander along the beach for the entire length of the city. About 2 million people visit San Clemente’s beaches every year, and there are few places where they can safely cross the tracks to get to the sand.

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Counting Amtrak, Metrolink and the freight lines, 26 trains a day rumble through San Clemente along the beachfront tracks that have been there for more than 100 years, according to a city report. In the past year, at least three people have been killed on the tracks within city limits.

“There is a huge potential problem here,” City Manager Michael W. Parness said. “The city is in the terrible position of encouraging people to cross the tracks in places where it is not legal.”

For years, the city has been stuck in the middle between two other public agencies with conflicting goals, Parness said.

On one side is the California Coastal Commission, which has identified 18 public access points to the beach and has mandated that San Clemente keep them open. On the other is the railroad, which is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission. It insists that only crossings it approves can be used.

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Ultimately, the trail system could provide the solution for crossing the tracks safely in several locations, as well as put the final link in an existing trail system that starts at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point and runs south to San Onofre State Park at the border between Orange and San Diego counties.

The track crossings could be a bridge, tunnel or an “at grade” crossing, Pechous said. But where the new access points will be is yet to be determined, he said.

“A big part of the project will be negotiating with the OCTA to establish safe crossings across the tracks,” Pechous said. “In all likelihood we won’t get access everywhere we want it.”

So far, surfers and residents applaud the idea of enhancing beach access with a recreational trail.

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“There is definitely danger out there now, with the tracks and people crossing frequently,” said Nick Carroll of Capistrano Beach, who is also editor of San Clemente-based Surfing magazine. “San Clemente is a beautiful little town and anything that lets people enjoy the place more is really good. At the same time, you always have to be wary of any attempt to alter the shore environment. But I think this is pretty cool.”


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