When Steve Scatolini walks through Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, it becomes home. He knows the vegetation by smell, taste, and name — buckwheat, coastal sage scrub, California sunflower, ladyfinger, lemonade berry, and acacia. Scatolini has visited the area since the late 1960s.
"This has been my playground since junior high, and when you're there by the ocean, the city disappears," he says. "There's nowhere else like it; it's a magical experience.... I have seen usage go up. When I was little, there were maybe 12 surfers per spot and fishermen. Now, there can be 1000 park users daily."
The 68-acre park is characterized by eroded land formations and cliffs. Scatolini, a former chairman and secretary of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council, believes increased land use is whittling away the ecosystem while improvements remain stalled.
"City government has neglected the park and left it to erode," he says. "The usage now is at a point where they need to say, 'Let's fix it up and preserve it.' There has been a continued community consensus for a natural open-space park."
A "master plan" for Sunset Cliffs Natural Park has been in progress since the early 1980s and is currently under environmental review by the city. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council chairperson Camilla Ingram has been told that the draft environmental impact report and next draft of the master plan will probably be available for public comment in September.
"The primary emphasis of the plan is to control erosion, more than anything, and capture water from city streets and Point Loma Nazarene University and put it into a proper drainage system," Ingram says. "In 1994, the Water Quality Control Board said Sunset Cliffs was the worst erosion-control point in San Diego County. The good news is that the city planning office has been doing a good planning job with this draft of the master plan."
Some say that three areas of contention are holding up the plan's development: Point Loma Nazarene University's softball field for its women's team, beach access, and restrooms.
During the 1980s, Point Loma Nazarene University built a softball field on city land to comply with Title IX regulations for equal physical education programs and facilities for women. The city granted the school a ten-year usage permit to convert a terrace on the western hillside portion of Sunset Cliffs into a field.
Anne Swanson, former chair of the Sunset Cliffs Task Force, Sunset Cliffs Advisory Committee, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council, says the university chose not to do anything about the ballfield in the process of developing its campus.
"Within those ten years, the field seldom came to use at all," she says. "When the ten-year lease was about to expire, the college decided to redo the field. We had all this input and the college did know the community's feelings, but somehow [it] got permission from the city to go renovate the ballfield. [The school] did not buy a permit or have an environmental impact report when it [developed] the land."
The Sunset Cliffs Recreation Council and the Parks and Recreation Department's coastal area committee both approved a master plan in the 1990s, but progress was halted by the school, according to Swanson. Meanwhile, the city accorded the school some privileges, including access to a western loop road until 2017.
"There have been various city councilmembers who have been lobbied hard by the college and the Little League committee, and some of them wanted to try and compromise, but the compromise they proposed was not a healthy one or environmentally right for the park," says Swanson. "Now we have more environmentally conscious city council people, and I am hopeful that things will be going nicely now."
Swanson and others are concerned that the field -- which was created by cutting into the hillside, building a flat bluff, and filling it up -- has accelerated Sunset Cliffs' erosion, cliff retreat, and block fall problems (which occur when a cliff face shears away). Scatolini adds that irrigation runoff has made the field an irregular shape.
"Water from piping has seeped into the bluff," he says. "East of the park, there's a canyon where a culvert was made to divert water that flowed from the university above. The natural course of the water was to go onto the field, and in 1988, I used to step across this culvert. Now, the canyon has been made wide by up-slope runoff channeled into one place. The canyon's a problem too, because homeless kids go there, and people have parties in it and leave trash. There are two big holes south of the field due to piping, a mud puddle in the field from irrigation, and slumping of the fence along the perimeter. On the north end, asphalt from roads, concrete, and rebar are dumped, and pilings are sticking out of the ground. The city constructed a sludge line west of the park. A crack from that goes up to the Young Hall [dormitory] parking lot."
According to Scatolini, surrounding areas have been impacted as well.
"In the old days, I would meet friends at 'the log,' " he says, motioning to a jutting piece of wood a few feet away from the Young Hall parking lot. "Now it's in midair due to runoff from hard surfaces. This was flat ground 15 to 20 years ago."
PLNU director of development Joe Watkins disagrees.
"I understand that San Diego Parks and Recreation is negotiating with a consultant to conduct a study of the erosion issue as part of the park master-planning process," he says. "The university will be interested in the results of the study and the recommendations of the consultant. Our view is that there is conflicting interpretations of the data. Obviously, we disagree with the contention that the field contributes to erosion."
Some argue that the ballfield's location divides the hillside portion of Sunset Cliffs and interrupts the park's natural character.
"If you were planning a park and you needed a ballfield to accommodate the neighborhood, you would not put it in such a remote location," Swanson says. "The truth is that in the peninsula area [Ocean Beach and Point Loma] we have a total of 21 ballfields, not including [the university's]. It's a matter of using our resources really well, and hopefully not having a field on the coastal terrace impacting the cliffs. The real deficiency in the peninsula is space for open-space, passive-use parks."