Nearly 100 people showed up at the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park Wednesday night (December 14) to see what county officials are thinking about putting in the large and largely undeveloped park that starts at the U.S.-Mexico border and stretches north for a mile and a half.
"We have an opportunity to do something very, very unique with our partners," county supervisor Greg Cox said. "We can open this up to more public use where it's appropriate for public use — most of the land is sensitive habitat."
The 1800-acre park is already home to the county's largest community garden, with 96 plots and at least as many people on the wait list. Ballfields line the northeast top of the park across from Suzie's Farm, and "there are 22 miles of hiking, bicycling, and equestrian trails. It includes two high mesas at the border and much acreage in the lowlands north of Monument Road, on both sides of the Tijuana River, and from Dairy Mart Road to about a mile from the beach on the west end.
The open space is part of an area renowned among bird-watchers for the hundreds of species found there, and a bird and butterfly garden has been established to take advantage of its location on the Pacific Flyway.
In October 2015, the San Diego County Parks and Recreation department held an open house to survey locals and current users on where to put a campground and how to put the park to work. Wednesday night, parks staff unveiled some ideas and alternative scenarios on how to do that: two locations for the campground, an outdoor arena, additions to the community garden, a bicycle park for kids, more playing fields, and where to put all of them.
There was a lot of enthusiasm for a bicycle park for kids. José Galaz, a boardmember of the San Diego Mountain Bike Association, came to support the idea. "A bike park would be a great place to teach kids how to be safe and enjoy the trails and the roads before they go out on them," he said. "The way many kids learn to ride — on the streets and sidewalks — it's scary for them and not safe. This would be a perfect place for a bike park."
Gale Moriarty of the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association said the proposed outdoor arena would be useful to the community. "I think they could use the arena as a venue for all kinds of things — a lot of equestrian events, of course, but also things like dog shows," she said.
The river valley folks who attended seemed less enthusiastic about the idea of a campground, which the county is committed to pursuing. They worried about traffic increasing on the narrow, shoulderless roads where a lack of connector trails force horses to share the roads with vehicles.
"We need connector trails," said Emma Reese. "Connect the mesas — the trails are already there, they should be part of the plan. Otherwise we have to ride or hike on Monument Road and that is just so dangerous."
In December 2013, Greg Cox surprised everyone — more than a dozen agencies have a stake in the river valley — by announcing his plan to put a campground in the valley, with his preferred site in Border Field State Park.
Cox is partly driven by a mandate from the California Coastal Commission (on which he serves) and its more than $10 million stash of developer fees that are supposed to be creating affordable lodging on the coast. The commission has collected more than $19 million, and the money it was able to spend went to campgrounds and hostels. No developers seem to be interested in building cheap motels.
The coastal commission has been unable to find a way to create affordable lodging along the California coast — part of its mission is public access — despite workshops and aggressive attempts to sell the idea on its part.
In 2014, Imperial Beach mayor Serge Dedina rejected the idea of cheap lodging in his city, saying the city needs the extra taxes on tourists that a top-shelf hotel brings.
Cox's idea was immediately controversial. The state parks bit into Cox at a public meeting, with then-superintendent Clay Phillips declaring "there will never be a campground in Border Field." But Cox has persisted, shifting the possible locations to the county park just east of Border Field.
After the October 2015 public workshop, acting San Diego Border Patrol sector chief Rodney Scott penned a letter to the county parks detailing why the preferred locations for a campground may not work out:
"Over 3,200 of [the 5,300 arrests in the Imperial Beach sector] occurred within the immediate vicinity of the proposed campsites. Twenty five percent of those apprehended had prior criminal convictions in the United States and some of the illegal crossers were documented gang members," the letter said.
The latest possible sites for the campground are on top of Spooner's Mesa and west of Hollister at the north end of the park.
County staff will take the comments and design a final plan, which they hope to have approved in the next year, according to parks department head Brian Albright. "We're going to do it," he promised. "You're going to see it come to fruition in a few years."