Restored wetlands take shape


A key section of the San Dieguito watershed east of I-5 is coming back to life halfway through a two-year, $87 million restoration project – and it shows. This photograph of the W-19 Restoration Site offers an aerial view of the restored tidal channel and saltwater wetlands to the left while a swath of new riparian plants can be seen taking hold on a recently completed berm just south of the main San Dieguito River channel that flows toward the sea at Del Mar.

The San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority in 2002 described the area as “degraded wetlands,” much of it former farmland for growing tomatoes and lima beans. After the River Park purchased the land – some 64 acres of tidal salt marsh and 15 acres of brackish wetlands – they worked with Caltrans and SANDAG to restore and bring back natural tidal flows to sustain flooding and future sea level rise along with a blend of natural habitats that include nesting and foraging areas for threatened and endangered wildlife.

The unfinished area in the foreground is expected to be finished next year as riparian habitat to support local wildlife bordered by a section of the Dust Devil Trail along El Camino Real connecting to the 70-mile long Coast to Crest trail.

Tentative step forward for assisted living facility

A massive assisted Living Facility project slated for the 3.97-acre St. John Garabed Armenian Church site along El Camino Real was conditionally approved in June 2023 by the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board – acting in its advisory capacity to the City of San Diego.

The proposed El Camino Assisted Living facility overlooking the San Dieguito River Valley as proposed, would entail a three-story, 40-ft.-high, 104,363 sq. ft. building with 104 rooms (122 assisted living beds and 20 memory-care beds), related amenities, and include some 57 parking spaces. The approval came with the conditions that traffic calming measures to address entry/exit traffic safety issues be installed; that the 40 ft. building height along the south boundary be reduced; and that the project return to the planning board with conclusive results of these conditional changes. The draft states that “with approval of [the various discretionary permits] … the impact of the project is considered to be “less than significant.”

The site, at the El Camino Real/San Dieguito Drive juncture, is located within two jurisdictions – the City of San Diego and the San Dieguito River Valley Park’s Focused Planning Area – that limit building heights to 30 feet.

The River Park Joint Powers Agency Board, for its part, submitted comments that listed “deficiencies in the SEIR [Supplemental Environmental Impact Report] that fall short in providing the necessary information regarding impact to the Park” and urged that these be addressed and corrected before a final decision on the project is made.

The City says all of the “very detailed” input from the planning board and the many draft SEIR comments have been forwarded to the applicant to address the issues raised. Their response will be reviewed by City staff before the project is forwarded to the City Planning Commission for public comment and review. It is anticipated the review process would be completed by the end of 2023 before it goes to the San Diego City Council for a final decision.

A reckoning for Surf Cup?

Seven years after signing a controversial 2016 lease with Surf Cup Sports for use of the former Polo Fields in the environmentally sensitive San Dieguito River Valley, the City of San Diego will soon have to answer for its controversial management of the 80-acre property.

A complaint filed in April 2023 by the Fairbanks Polo Club Homeowners’ Association is asking for a California Superior Court judge to rule on the city’s failure to enforce what the group maintains are repeated violations of both the lease and controlling Grant Deed by Surf Cup Sports as the company has expanded its operations and activities. This includes unaddressed traffic, air quality, noise, and other environmental impacts on the surrounding communities, as well as contentious modifications to the site. Surf surrounded much of the property with chain link fencing, poured a mid-field concrete pad, and most recently, constructed a cordoned-off training compound for San Diego Wave FC, a National Women’s Soccer League expansion team.

Approximately 315 cars on a typical weekday afternoon on Surf Cup’s Field #5. Located in the northeast corner of the 80-acre property, Field #5 is less visible but sees far greater use than the main fields. In addition to multi-day weekend tournaments Field #5 hosts soccer practices and scrimmages nearly every afternoon from 3 p.m. until dark throughout the year. This involves scores of players, their families, and hundreds of cars. Because daily use of Field #5 is not listed on any official Surf Cup calendar, such activities fly under the radar in broader discussions of days, events, or income from the site leased from the City of San Diego.

The lawsuit specifically targets Surf’s aggressive commercial use of the 80-acre property for weekend soccer tournaments, daily practices, and non-sporting events well beyond the 25-day limit established by the Grant Deed that transferred the land to the city in 1983. Those activities now draw hundreds of thousands of people and vehicles each year to an area that was to be preserved as open space in a natural condition as near possible, according to the Grant Deed, “for passive non-commercial recreational uses (e.g. picnicking, walking, hiking, and similar activities), and reasonable support facilities…and active non-commercial recreational uses not involving large assemblages of people or automobiles….”

A previous lawsuit by The Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley (FSDRV) sought to require an Environmental Impact Report to address just such concerns before the city approved the Surf Cup lease. That suit and subsequent appeal were denied based on the assumption that continued use of the property would not exceed the 25-day limit.

Although not a focus of the current lawsuit, Surf Cup is also required by the 28-year lease agreement, to restore the portion of the Coast to Crest Trail that parallels the fields at an estimated cost of $1 million. Other than a cosmetic brush and weed cleanup in early 2022, trail restoration has yet to begin.

In May the City filed a motion to change the venue from the North County Division to the Central District. That motion was denied by Judge Earl H. Maas III at June 30 hearing. Next up is a case management conference scheduled for late September 2023.

Bench with a view

An elegant metal bench with graceful egret insets was recently installed at the Salt Marsh Bird Viewpoint in Del Mar, just off Jimmy Durante Blvd. across from the fire station. The bench was designed in honor of Claire Tipler, a local artist, and donated by her family in recognition of her love for art and nature. The bench was created by metal artist David Frisk of Encinitas.

Bump in the road

This past June we reported that the two-lane bump in the Coast to Crest Trail along the northern shore of the San Dieguito River where it crosses El Camino Real would soon be replaced with a continuous pass beneath a new bridge. At the same time the currently eroded trail just west of El Camino Real was to be restored.

No such luck. Now the project first proposed in 2005 and expected to begin last summer is on hold until 2024 in order to “amend the site development permit” to meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements. The three-year construction process now is anticipated to finish in late 2027.

Rare geese pay a visit to the valley

Greater White-fronted Geese breakfasting in the San Dieguito River Valley

The Greater White-fronted Goose was a frequent winter visitor to the salt marshes and lakes of southern California until its Pacific coast population was decimated by uncontrolled hunting in the early 20th century. Small flocks still migrate in early fall from western Alaska to winter in northwestern mainland Mexico, using San Diego County as their route to the Pacific coast. But the elegant brown birds with their distinctive orange legs and white rump are rarely seen here, and never more than a few at a time – that is, until this week when a flock of 62 Greater White-fronted geese (including a lone Snow Goose) was seen – and heard – just after sunrise, flying over the San Dieguito River Valley. The honking geese cautiously circled several times before touching down in a vacant horse paddock near San Dieguito Road. The largest previous sighting of the Greater White-fronted Goose in San Diego County was 17 at Sweetwater Reservoir in December 1997.

Update 11/4/22 Since the October 25, 2022 post (above), the local flock of Greater White-fronted geese has increased to over 100 birds with the lone Snow Goose still in the mix. They appear to be commuting between the Del Mar Lagoon (where they spend the late afternoon and night) and the horse farm in Rancho Santa Fe where they land just after dawn.

Lone Snow Goose with 62 close friends
Geese increase: The flock of Greater White-fronted geese flying toward the Del Mar Lagoon on the afternoon of November 4, 2002. Note the Snow Goose in the bottom line of the formation

Friends spur fresh look at delayed trail restoration

The San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority (JPA) has asked the City of San Diego to establish a deadline for restoring a section of the Coast to Crest Trail that Surf Cup Sports committed to do when they signed the lease for the former Del Mar polo fields in 2016. The Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley were instrumental in the recent effort to jumpstart this process.

Surf Cup’s April 2022 $6 million purchase and grading of a parcel just north of the fields (that includes protected wetlands) generated renewed scrutiny of Surf’s activities – and raised questions about the holdup in restoring the trail segment along the south side of the soccer fields. Surf Cup has cited cost as the reason for the six-year delay.

The JPA manages the San Dieguito River Park as “a landmark project in land preservation, habitat restoration, and construction of the regional Coast to Crest Trail.” Its members include representatives from the relevant jurisdictions including Joe LaCava, District 1, City of San Diego that includes Del Mar Heights and Carmel Valley; Kelly Harless, Solana Beach; and Dwight Worden, Del Mar.

“The unfinished gap promised by Surf Cup to correct [the] previous lessee’s damage and improving public access for pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, and bird watchers,” Dave Grosch, JPA chairman wrote in his September 26 letter to the City, “is preventing completion of this key part of the CTC Trail.”

Update: On October 6, 2022, the City of San Diego issued a Civil Penalty Notice and Order to Surf Cup Sports for unpermitted grading on their newly acquired lot adjacent to the fields. This included unpermitted placement and compacting of gravel into native substrate by driving and parking activities, grubbing and removal of native vegetation on property considered Environmental Sensitive Lands, and use of a vacant lot for storage of multiple soccer goalposts. The Notice sets deadlines from immediate compliance to a March 31, 2023 deadline to correct the issues or face assessments of $1,000 a day for each violation until corrected.

Getting closer and closer to the beach

A small but vital piece of land sandwiched between the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the mouth of the San Dieguito River represents one of the last links in the Reach-the-Beach campaign.

The parcel, already acquired by the San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Authority (JPA), was the focus of a recent site visit by the Trails Committee of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee to the JPA Board.

Click on map to enlarge

Because this trail segment currently is unused, JPA staff would like the area to serve as a placeholder park demonstrating the River Park’s intentions to complete the trail while in the meantime allowing public use of the land. The tail end of this trail segment will eventually form the western gateway of the C2C Trail, similar to the eastern gateway at Vulcan Mountain defined by an art installation by James Hubbell, the distinguished San Diego artist, sculptor, and architect. A similar marker is being considered for the western terminus that will form an interim turnaround point for trail users until a rail bridge and platform are built allowing passage to the beach.

The trail segment will be accessed from Jimmy Durante Drive on the east (currently through a locked gate requiring special permission from the Fairgrounds) and follow the river bank toward the ocean. The west end now is blocked by the railroad. Eventually the tracks will be elevated to accommodate a seasonal platform for fair-bound passengers while allowing the C2C Trail to connect to the beach. For the time being, there is a crude 20-foot-wide path alongside the fairgrounds bordered by a low, split-rail fence. It’s unclear when the public will actually be able to enjoy this temporary park, so stay tuned.

Cheryl Goddard tapped to lead Conservancy

The Friends are delighted to learn about the appointment of Cheryl Goddard as executive director of the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy (SDRVC). The Conservancy, a sister organization, preserves and protects the river valley through land acquisition, trail work, habitat restoration, and educational programs.

Most recently Ms. Goddard was a senior planner with the City of Chula Vista’s Development Services Department. Previously she spent 16 years as an environmental planner and manager in the County of San Diego’s departments of Planning and Land Use and Recreation where she carried out land conservation programs, planned parks and trails, and secured grants for habitat restoration.

Ms. Goddard earned bachelor’s degrees in urban studies and planning and ethnic studies from the University of California, San Diego, and holds a master’s degree in public administration from San Diego State University. She is a member of the San Diego chapter of the Association of Environmental Professionals.

Del Mar Horsepark will ride again

The 22nd Agricultural District on June 6, 2022 awarded the contract to manage the historic equestrian facility to Tom Struzzieri, CEO of Struzzieri Ventures, Inc., after a previous show management company pulled out. The popular equestrian site was abruptly closed in December 2020 due to new water regulations requiring a $3 million-$4 million investment in infrastructure improvements. Some 35 horse show contracts were cancelled with the closure of the facility.

Mr. Struzzieri’s company, HITS (Horse Shows in the Sun), operates similar facilities nationwide and plans to bring back the Del Mar Horse Park as a world-class event facility in time for the 2023 show season. HITS will be working through the end of this year to install a new drainage system to filter storm and runoff water, as well as improve footing in the rings, adjust the layout to be more exhibitor friendly, and upgrade the stables.

Friends of Del Mar Horsepark collected over 17,000 signatures petitioning the 22 DAA, owner of Del Mar Fairgrounds and Horsepark, to find a way to reopen the 65-acre facility. They were aided by local city council members, the Fair Board and staff, and supported by the San Dieguito River Park Conservancy.