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County trails program boosts southern recreation

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Within 10 years, the unincorporated areas of San Diego County will boast 600 miles of official trails thanks to the Community Trails Master Plan, an ambitious, long-term project that will link 600 miles of trails among the 18 participating communities.

What this project will mean for South County residents is that they will be able to bike to Riverside County, jog to the ocean or ride a horse through the desert from almost any path in the unincorporated area.

"People who enjoy using trails don't look at it as a trail that belongs to the county or to the city of San Diego or Chula Vista," said Brian Albright, assistant director of the county's parks and recreation department. "They don't care what jurisdiction they're in. They look at it as a trail. They want to be able to go out and have an enjoyable trail experience."

Dean Ziegler, a member of the Sweetwater Community Planning Group trails sub-committee and the Bonita Valley Horsemen Group, stressed the importance of including the Community Trails Master Plan into the mix of South County developments.

"We realized that either we act now to make our trail network official or we're not going to have them," Ziegler said. "Bonita is a rural, equestrian community that's being surrounded by rampant development -- 70,000 homes just to the south of us."

To ensure that growing communities have trails, the plan outlined a formula: Each subregional community should have 0.8 miles of trail per 1,000 residents.

For example, the population of the Sweetwater Community Plan area, based on the 2000 U.S. Census, is 13,139. Therefore, there is a need for 11 miles of community trails. In the year 2020, the population is projected to increase to 15,280. Twelve miles of trails will be needed -- only a one-mile increase.

Currently, several South County trails are under development across jurisdictions.

The Sweetwater Loop Trail and the Otay Valley Regional Park Trail include parts of the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista, National City and the unincorporated areas of the county. The trails also will be a part of two of the longest in South County, said Maryann Vancio, the county's trails program coordinator.

The Sweetwater Loop Trail will run 31 miles from Campo Road and Highway 94, through the 11-mile loop around the Sweetwater Reservoir, through Chula Vista and National City, to the California Coastal Trail, which runs the entire length of the state.

The Otay Valley Regional Park Trail will run 20 miles from the Silver Strand through Otay Valley and the east side of Otay Lakes Reservoir. It then will connect to the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which passes through Jamul-Dulzura, Crest-Dehesa and Alpine. That trail connects to the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cuyamaca State Park.

Duane Bazzel, Chula Vista's principal planner, said the city has incorporated both trails into its greenbelt, a 28-mile area of open space that encircles the city.

"The county's plan covers most of our eastern interface," Bazzel said. "We're in sync. We have a process to continue to work with them."

Funding for many of the trails will come from grants. The money will help with development, such as when engineering and environmental studies are necessary.

The trails will be developed on public and private lands. Most trail easements will be acquired through a discretionary permit process, Vancio said. However, many private property owners have expressed concerns about liability.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors responded by adopting a defense and indemnification ordinance in July 2000, said Supervisor Greg Cox.

The ordinance provided that the property owner is not liable for any negligence or accidents on the trails. It also promised that the county would provide a lawyer to represent the landowner if any legal action occurred.

The adoption of the ordinance encouraged many private property owners to voluntarily dedicate their land, Cox said.

Currently, the unincorporated areas of the county -- which are communities outside city limits -- have 300 miles of trails.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the new trail plan will link 600 miles of trails among the 18 participating communities.

County officials also are coordinating with federal, state and city governments to link their trails with county trails so joggers, bikers, walkers and equestrians will be able to utilize the trails seamlessly.

The Countywide Goals and Policies for the regional and community trails were adopted by the Board of Supervisors in January 2002.

"The whole intent is to build connections," Vancio said.

"The plan is revolutionary and innovative," said Albright of the county's parks and recreation department. "It will make San Diego County one of, if not the best, trails destinations in the country."

County officials are planning the first regional trails symposium for this fall. Trail users and other jurisdictions developing trail networks will be invited to attend.

To learn more about the Community Trails Master Plan, visit www.sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/docs/CTMP-pdf/tocrev.pdf.

Horton is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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