Walkers young and old stroll along a recently enhanced trail in Fairview Park, marking the cleared pathway with their footprints, which get criss-crossed by the occasional bike tires rolling through.
The nearly 400-foot-long path stretches east to west, abutting the fence line between the park and Parsons Field. It's within earshot of remote-controlled airplanes piloted by grounded aces that whir about the sky. Just over the fence, cheerleaders laugh as they practice, and young football players pant as they run their plays, all before the sun sets and the area closes.
On the surface, the scene shows people enjoying a beloved Costa Mesa park highlighted by a well-kept trail.
The problem is less apparent: No one seems to know how the trail got there.
Who created it? Who recently improved it with a fresh layer of decomposed granite? Why isn't the path labeled on the park's master plan? Does it go through sensitive habitat?
City officials say no one received official permission to make the recent improvements, and in the weeks since the trail became publicized on Fairview Park users' social media, there's been a digital dust-up.
On one side are those who defend the suspected trailblazers, the unnamed "booster club" members who, for years without recognition, have routinely cleared brush in the area to make better a path commonly used by children going to sporting events.
On the other side are environmentally conscious residents dismayed by the unpermitted change to their adored natural landscape of birds, wind-swept bluffs and, as it's officially known, Vernal Pool 6.
A lot of changes happen within Fairview Park's 208-acre spread that aren't permitted, city Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz acknowledged.
The creation and improvement of this path, he said, seems to be one of "those things that get done in the park overnight."
City code requires approval of modifications to public property, and Fairview Park is no exception.
"Just look at the bluffs," he said. "Somebody just carved stairs on the bluffs. BMX bikers make mounds as well. There are things that can get done out there without city permission."
If the Orange County Model Engineers wanted to add more tracks, they would need permission, Munoz said. The same goes for the Harbor Soaring Society, which has a dedicated runway for members' remote-control airplanes, if it wanted to expand.
City officials consider the east-west trail, as well as a north-south one near it, "user-defined," meaning they have formed over time from routine use. The north-south path, about 120 feet long, runs along the fence separating Fairview Park from Jim Scott Stadium. It might have been created in some form — and routinely maintained through brush clearing — around the time the stadium was built in 2008.
Some residents contend, however, that the longer east-west path is new and seems to have popped up rather quickly.
Satellite views of the park from Google Earth, which tend to be between 1 and 3 years old, show the north-south trail but not the east-west path. City officials, however, point to aerial views of the park from the 1970s and '80s that suggest the area has had trails of some kind there in the past.
One Fairview Park activist took exception to the "user-defined" description.
"There doesn't seem to be anything user-defined about these new trails — they are professionally done," said Brian Burnett, a member of Friends of Fairview Nature Park, whose goals include saving the park from development.
Several accounts suggest that both trails were topped with decomposed granite, and the north-south one possibly widened, within the past six weeks. The north-south path has wooden telephone poles that provide a barrier between it and adjacent habitat, though there is no signage.
The nearest sign indicating the unspecified ecological significance of the area — "Biologically sensitive area. Keep out," it reads — is several hundred feet west, not adjacent to any marked trails.
Who built the new trail?
Members of a local "booster club" might have done the work on the trails, Munoz said, though representatives from groups that frequent Parsons Field and the area — Costa Mesa United, the Harbor Soaring Society and Pop Warner football — say their members didn't do it.
"It's nothing we've ever done," said Sean Patterson, Pop Warner president, after reviewing his organization's paperwork and not seeing a bill related to the work.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who's active with Costa Mesa United and is a council liaison for the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee, said there are more important issues in the community to debate than "a dirt trail."
"I'm not certain who's behind this story. ... We have massive unfunded pension liability, we have public safety challenges, we have to pay for infrastructure improvements," he said. "And we're worried about kids using a dirt trail? I think it's really endemic of the problems we have in government today."
The city councilwomen took exception to the apparent lack of adherence to the rules.
"The park belongs to the people of Costa Mesa," said Councilwoman Wendy Leece. "Individual groups should get permission when they make changes."
Councilwoman Sandy Genis was involved in past efforts to create the Fairview Park Master Plan. She also serves with Mensinger as a liaison to the park's citizens advisory committee. Among her qualms: Neither trail is on the master plan.
"To me, the path itself is not that huge a deal," Genis said. "It's very frustrating, as a council member, to see disregard for adopted plans and adopted rules, whether it has to do with Fairview Park or other things. It's just extremely frustrating to me, especially when we seem to be setting such a high standard for how homeowners keep their frontyards."
She said the responsible parties probably weren't "trying to be bad," but "if you think it was fine, then get up and say, 'We did it.' And if you realize you made a mistake, man up and take responsibility."
For some environmentalists, the fact that nobody is taking such responsibility doesn't come as a surprise.
"Whoever did this should get a slap on the wrist," said Westside resident Lisa Manfredi. "Can I go down there and put down a trail because I want to walk my horse through the park? Who has the permission to put stuff down like that?"
Added Burnett: "The fact that someone doesn't want to take credit for them says a lot right there. ... It seems to be a hot-potato issue, probably because it's illegal."
Vernal Pool 6
Manfredi, who lives with her family next to Parsons Field, wishes she had recorded the sounds emanating from Fairview Park's tiny creatures in the vernal ponds after recent rains.
"It's phenomenal," she said. "It really is. It's just great for my kids. They never experience anything like that, and we just can't wait to go into the park for those kinds of seasons."
But while some people defend their right to see and hear nature in all its glory, others decry the conservationist argument as a case of "voodoo environmentalism."
Two city-paid surveys from around 1995 and 2007 identified one of six vernal pools — a rare but once-common temporary wetland that fills with rainwater and becomes a home to several types of species — at or near the point where the east-west and north-south trails meet. The earlier survey mapped vernal pool No. 6 at 0.04 acres and described it as "somewhat degraded by trash which has been dumped there."
The later survey said the pool was slightly smaller, at 0.02 acres, and not floristically diverse. Furthermore, it supported few San Diego fairy shrimp, an endangered species.
The eye-squinting stature of the fairy shrimp — about half an inch — has some people wondering what the fuss is about.
An Aug. 4 posting on the Facebook page for Fairview Park Friends, a kind of online counterpoint to Friends of Fairview Nature Park, said: "Some say that a dirt path used by kids is a threat to a creature that humans may never see. It may be hard to believe, but voodoo environmentalism may be the biggest threat to Fairview Park."
Genis, a professional land planner, said that if the vernal pool locations are still true, then "if we did fill in a habitat area, we've got kind of a problem."
She added, "Regardless of what the laws are, we really need to be good stewards, especially considering we've really promoted the [riparian habitat] restoration."
When asked about restoration, Munoz, the city's public services director, said there are plans.
Most of the previously identified vernal pools haven't been clearly delineated, he said, but are conceptually shown in the master plan. The city wants to again retain a biologist to precisely map the pools with GPS technology.
"With that information, we're going to install cable railings around all of them so that it's clear what we have and where they're at," Munoz said. "That way they don't get disturbed in the future."
Cables already surround the park's largest vernal pool, which is about 3 acres and located northwest of the Harbor Soaring Society's runway.
It's important for the city to "diagrammatically locate the vernal ponds once and for all," Mensinger said. "I'm fine if you want to protect the vernal ponds, but don't just draw them with a piece of paper."
Burnett and like-minded lovers of Fairview Park say it needs protection, maybe a champion like John Muir who achieved so much for Yosemite.