No hiking down to lunch at Admiral Baker from Tierrasanta

A trail to the San Diego River?

Last spring, Lee Campbell was looking for an apt way that Friends of Tierrasanta Canyons might participate in River Days. The celebration is staged annually by the San Diego River Park Foundation and was held in 2008 from May 10 to 18. After talking it over with friends, Campbell settled on two weekend hikes from southern Tierrasanta down to the clubhouse at the Admiral Baker Golf Course. His group could then have lunch at the clubhouse and hike back home afterward. Good views of the San Diego River are to be had along the way.

The Admiral Baker course is nestled in a low spot near the northeast corner of Friars Road and Santo Road. From Santo, an entrance road into the golf club takes you north along fairways to the driving range, where golfers tee off to the north. To the range’s right lies the clubhouse with a large parking lot in front of it.

Campbell and I are sitting in the clubhouse and admiring a scenic horizon from Cowles Mountain on our right to the hills of Tierrasanta on the left. Behind us, guests are already sampling a buffet. The clubhouse sits above the river, which is in full view several hundred feet east. “So I came down here,” Campbell tells me, “and checked with the restaurant folks if it was okay for our group to walk down here. ‘Oh, sure, glad to have you. If you have a large party, we can put you on the patio,’ they said.”

But Campbell figured he’d better speak with someone who had more authority. That’s when things became difficult. The golf pros who run the club told him that he’d have to submit a request letter that could be passed further up the chain of command. The Admiral Baker course is operated by the Navy and is open for golf to retired military and civil service personnel. The clubhouse, however, serves lunch and dinner to the general public.

After a delay in reaching the right person, who was traveling, word came back to Campbell that his wishes could not be accommodated because of “security” concerns. “So I looked at the map to see if I could find another way down the hill, and I saw that the whole area of the driving range was on City open-space land.” (Campbell says that another member of his community had been looking into the issue as early as 2007.)

The path that Campbell’s group initially wanted comes down Rueda Canyon, west of the golf course, and empties onto a San Diego Gas and Electric access road that runs along the western, unfenced side of the driving range. A second trail, one he discovered through the map search, started at the end of Viacha Drive. But although it avoided the driving range, it was too steep for casual walkers. On the basis of this information, Campbell put in a second request to use his preferred route. It was denied for safety reasons.

“All it would take,” says Campbell, “is for us to tell them the exact time we planned to walk by the driving range, and they could stop the driving for five minutes. We would still be on City land at that point. But no.”

In the end, Campbell called all the people who had signed up for the hike and informed them of a change in plans. Eventually, they hiked halfway down the hill, crossing and recrossing a creek that flows into the San Diego River, to a picturesque viewpoint. Then they turned around and walked back to an Italian restaurant in Tierrasanta.

Although Campbell had told the golf pros he wanted to go only as far as the Admiral Baker clubhouse, he’d also mentioned that “in the future we want to have a trail that goes to the river.”

You might not have wanted to mention that, I chime in. Maybe that scared them off.

“It could have, but I’m not so sure,” says Campbell. “From everything I’ve heard, when a community group wants access to or near a [nonsensitive] federal facility, the U.S. government is cooperative in finding a way to make it happen.

“Even the San Diego River Coalition wanted us to keep pursuing the trail all the way to the river. One of their key concerns is to give people access to the river once it’s been developed and is in good shape again.

“Of course, not everybody in Tierrasanta will want the trail I’m talking about,” says Campbell, who is also a member of the Tierrasanta Community Council. He tells me of a 2001 battle among residents over a plan, eventually defeated, to extend Tierrasanta Boulevard into a bike path to the river. “It was even going to have a bridge over the river, and the City expressed interest. But the City’s plan was too expensive, and they didn’t think it through very well. People were afraid for kids because much of the path was not visible from above, the path was steep, and there were lots of switchbacks.”

After River Days, Campbell pestered civilian employees of the Navy for a trail to the river. His phone calls, he says, were not returned. “If we could go out along the golf course entrance road all the way to Friars and then cut down to the river, that would be nice. After all, it would be on City land. I wanted them to know that I’m not arguing against the Navy using City land. I just want a trail.”

The City may have long known that the Navy was encroaching on the open space. But to make sure, Campbell called the encroachment to the attention of the City’s Real Estate Assets Department, the city attorney’s office, and Bill Anderson, head of the planning department. At first, the efforts produced no action that Campbell was privy to. “They were probably doing a behind-the-scenes thing to make this go away, and finally a response will come out saying that the military owns all the land, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Campbell wondered if the City had already turned the land over in a quitclaim deed.

A City employee, whose name Campbell won’t divulge, told him, “We ought to do a route slip. It gets a number, becomes an action, and can be tracked.” So they approached Councilman Madaffer’s office. When Campbell later asked about the route slip’s progress, an official in the office told him not to worry because Bill Anderson claimed to be “on top of it.”

The Navy might get lucky if the City takes no action against the encroachment on the west side of the golf course, but that’s not so likely on its east side. That’s where the course also encroaches on property of the Superior Ready Mix’s Mission Gorge plant. By phone, I reach the company’s attorney, Arnie Veldkamp, who says he can’t discuss negotiations that are now under way with the Navy. But Campbell says that, in conversations with company employees, he’s learned that Superior wants to build on the land, which is near the river.

At a meeting of the San Diego River Park Foundation in early November, Campbell ran into Bill Anderson and bent his ear over the encroachment problem. The encounter resulted eventually in Anderson’s instructing the City’s Real Estate Assets Department to investigate.

On November 20, real estate assets’ Lane MacKenzie wrote to Chris Zirkle, director of the Park and Recreation Department’s open-space division. The letter indicated that in two actions, one in 1944 and another in 1968, the federal government deeded to the City approximately 444 acres that now include the driving range and one hole on the golf course. But the exact boundaries of the land are unclear. MacKenzie indicated that he had spoken with Navy officials. “The Navy acknowledged,” he wrote, “that if the question persists about this possible encroachment, the only way to resolve it, to everyone’s satisfaction, would be to have the entire area fully surveyed. Such a survey could possibly exceed $20,000.”

Tierrasanta Community Council members do not want to spend that much on surveying. On January 22, the council’s open-space committee decided to buy from a “photo bank” in Mira Mesa old aerial shots of Tierrasanta that might clear up the encroachment issue. One such photo currently hangs on a wall of the Tierrasanta Branch Library. After the photos are obtained, the committee plans to pursue negotiations further with the Navy over trail access from Tierrasanta to the San Diego River.

“I do not want to evict the Navy from the golf course or the driving range,” Campbell writes me in an email. “The golf course is a great asset to Tierrasanta. Besides providing recreation for our military families, it also provides a wonderful view, a quiet zone, and a buffer area…that helps define Tierrasanta as the ‘island in the hills.’ ”

Still, Campbell feels that his community deserves a trail to the San Diego River. The river park foundation wants as much public access to the river as possible. “And the foundation’s plan,” says Campbell, “encompasses little tributaries like the creek we followed halfway down the hill last spring.” Friends of Tierrasanta Canyons hope to participate in River Days again this May. This time, they hope to walk all the way to the river.

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