2003 Award Newspaper Commentary Writing

Paving over paradise along Torrey Pines State Beach

By Lisa Ross

July 4, 2002

Today, beachgoers will swamp Torrey Pines State Beach to sunbathe and barbecue along arguably San Diego's most popular historic scenic five miles of coastline. Five days later, San Diego city engineers will ask the California Coastal commission to approve an unnecessary and unattractive coast highway project that will alter the future of that beloved park forever.

The road project has met pointed opposition in Del Mar but so far has not provoked the kind of fireworks set off by the wider environmental community over the relatively obscure Sorrento Valley Road on east side of Los Peñasquitos Lagoon across the way.

While environmentalists waged a very public battle with local businesses on behalf of wildlife to close Sorrento Valley Road, they have remained relatively quiet on the coast highway project largely because San Diego is proceeding under the radar without the sort of environmental impact study required of many inland projects with far less at stake, precluding a full public review of the project.

City engineers, supported by City Council member Scott Peters, a recent appointee to the Coastal Commission and whose council district includes this patch of San Diego Eden, want to widen a 1,970-foot stretch of coast highway between Del Mar and Torrey Pines State Park during reconstruction of the outdated and dangerous bridge spanning the mouth of Los Peñasquitos Lagoon to accommodate a third traffic lane.

Plans include room for the new 21-foot lane, a pedestrian access ramp and 19-foot masonry retaining walls replacing native vegetated sand slopes. The project will blow out a historic stand of trees, cast an 8,500-square-foot shadow over fragile lagoon habitat and beaches, add room for another lane of noisy traffic along Torrey Pines State Beach and consume 25 feet of precious lagoon beach. This, in spite of the city's own traffic analysis that concluded an additional lane would not improve traffic flows on the crowded highway largely because the city of Del Mar, owner of an old but historic bridge several yards up the road, flatly refuses to encourage more traffic by building another lane to match when that bridge is seismically retrofitted.

This means that San Diego's fantasy new third lane, after inviting more cars to come on down from Torrey Pines mesa, would quickly merge into one as cars reach the northern bridge several hundred yards up the road.

Councilman Peters hoped to quash a budding revolution by his constituents and city of Del Mar supporters in defense of their adored Torrey Pines vista by offering to stripe just two lanes while building the same additional 42,000 feet of now really useless concrete.

This political sleight-of-hand did not wash with the current and former chairs of the Torrey Pines Planning Group, who are leading the charge on this issue. Nor did it placate the Del Mar City Council, Torrey Pines Association* and Carmel Mountain Conservancy who sent letters to the Coastal Commission opposing the widening project anyway.

Apparently, San Diego city engineers still want room for their extra lane in anticipation of the day when Del Mar residents overthrow their local representatives and elect a City Council interested in adding more cars to the coast highway, or when Del Mar Terrace and Del Mar Heights folks replace their Torrey Pines Planning Board with people who want more traffic inching along semi-rural Carmel Valley Road.

In the face of this unlikely scenario, reason suggests that the $5.2 million project deserves another look.

But, like old George III, city engineers have their heads in the sands of Torrey Pines and are determined to proceed without a full environmental impact report, arguing that a new bridge offers substantial environmental improvements for Los Peñasquitos Lagoon and enough overriding public benefit to justify avoiding such a study that could take at least a year to complete.

Certainly, lengthening the bridge span and reducing the number and circumference of support pillars at the mouth of the lagoon will allow better sediment discharge into the ocean, essential for improving the health of this seriously impaired wetland.

This argument apparently proved irresistible to members of the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon Foundation and Torrey Pines State Park officials who are not opposing the widening plan that will tarnish views from and of the park and over the lagoon. Understandably, these folks want the lagoon mouth opened, yesterday.

But, clearly the much-needed improvements to the mouth of the lagoon do not require turning the highway into a runway, and in fact, without complete environmental review, no one knows the extent of the environmental impacts from more cars traveling closer to the lagoon and from manufactured retaining walls.

Peters finally agreed to work with environmental and community leaders last month to find a solution before the project goes before the Coastal Commission this month, but that had all the earmarks of too little too late, and the city plans to proceed.

San Diegans deserve a full environmental review before ruining a stunningly beautiful and historic coastal route forever. A complete environmental impact report would not only settle the controversy over potential negative effects of the road widening, but more importantly would also force the city to develop alternative plans.

It should not take another environmental revolution or the heavy hand of the California Coastal Commission to convince city officials that 42,000 feet of useless concrete will damage a beloved habitat for thousands of Torrey Pines Beach visitors while doing nothing improve traffic on the coast.

*changed at request of Sierra Club. When op-ed written and filed, a letter of opposition from the Sierra Club was on file with the Coastal Commission. A Sierra Club spokesman informed me that the club sent a letter to the Coastal Commission dated July 1, 2002 now supporting the project.

Ross is a writer and former three-term member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board. She can be reached at www.lisaross.com.