Coaster train
A Coaster train heading north on the Del Mar bluffs. Photo by Chris Jennewein

The North County Transit District is moving ahead with a controversial plan to erect fencing along the tracks in Del Mar to prevent train deaths and resulting lawsuits.

The public agency’s board of directors voted 17-0 earlier this month to proceed with fencing despite opposition from the City of Del Mar, the California Coastal Commission and numerous residents, many of whose views would be affected.

The railroad right-of-way along the bluff is private property, but has long been popular with hikers, and surfers have created multiple paths across the tracks to get to the beach.

It’s a hazardous stretch, however, with over 60 fatalities during the past five years, most recently on Dec. 21. The agency has been the target of numerous lawsuits over those deaths.

Board member Paul McNamara, who is mayor of Escondido, said the agency’s need is clear: “We own that right-of-way and we need to provide safety.”

But residents speaking at the Jan. 20 board meeting were almost uniformly opposed to the fencing.

“It is simply not realistic to fence off 130 years of public access for millions,” said former Del Mar mayor Al Tarkington before the vote, though he also acknowledged fencing could improve safety along some stretches.

Other speakers said “nature and people lose” if the fencing is erected, with the construction potentially putting the bluffs at risk, “killing views” and resulting in “imprisonment” of the community. Before the meeting, the NCTD board had received over 300 written and voicemail comments.

Yard sign in Del Mar opposing the fence.

The transit agency’s plan calls for erecting over a mile of fencing with a mix of 4-foot and six-foot black mesh fence in two phases costing $3.1 million.

The cities of Carlsbad, Encinitas, Oceanside and Solana Beach have worked with NCTD to erect fencing over the years, but discussions between the transit agency and Del Mar broke down.

In voting to procced with the fencing, the agency gave Del Mar until Feb. 28 to agree to a modified plan with shorter fences along the city’s upper bluff in return for accepting some liability in the case of lawsuits.

The city said in a statement prior to the vote that it had retained special counsel for assistance in the dispute.

“Legal crossings coupled with other safety measures, such as signage and advanced warning systems, could greatly enhance public safety and are viable options instead of installing fences in areas where it is already difficult, if not impossible, to access the railroad tracks,” the city said.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.