By Julie Thunder
9-29-18 Update: In the candidates’ community forum at Ada Harris, challenger Jody Hubbard said she does support a park gate at Somerset Ave., but would be unable to vote on it if she were elected to council since she lives so close to the area.
In a closed-session meeting with the City Attorney, Mayor Blakespear and the City Council voted to consider an alternate location for a gate into the park at Somerset Avenue in Cardiff. Although it appears they have given up on a gate at Starlight Drive, they have not formally stopped the process so the Starlight lawsuit continues for now. It is unknown if the Somerset location will spur another lawsuit.
Mark Muir, Councilmember and Cardiff representative, said that he has “not changed his position on this issue and will still vote against a gate on either Starlight or Somerset, honoring the promise of a prior Council”.
What began as a search for a Safe Route To School (SRTS) has turned into a public debate about park access. Long-time residents living along the park’s west and south borders remember the difficult months of planning for the park years ago. Back then, they successfully argued for the 6’ masonry wall that now borders their neighborhoods, stating the narrow roads and limited parking combined with increased traffic would be a hardship for property owners.
As a direct result of the residents’ involvement, the City added verbiage to the Major Use Permit (MUP) that defined a 6’ high wall and later added a “Special Condition” that refers to the City Council hearing on October 20, 2008. At that meeting, the Council specifically clarified with City Staff that the southern boundary of ECP will not have any gates into the park.
Fast forward ten years to a new mayor and council majority who say that a gate at Starlight or Somerset is needed (Mark Muir continues to vote ‘no’). Their argument has become more about park access and improving bike and walking routes than a Safe Route To School, as the connecting roads from Somerset toward Cardiff Elementary cannot be ADA compliant (handicap access), the roads have no sidewalks and are often crowded with parked cars, and there is a dangerous intersection at Rossini & Stafford.
Neighbors in the area are frustrated. They’ve repeatedly reminded the Mayor and Council about the MUP and the Special Condition stating that there will be no southern entrance. At one Council meeting, Mayor Blakespear responded, “When you look at the whole park and you see the entrances, I think it’s an oversight that there isn’t already a gate on the south side. Now, the Council and staff are different and there is a changing perspective about what we need to do.”
Residents have tried to compromise by asking that any proposed gate be open “only during school hours” to limit traffic problems in their neighborhood, but the Mayor and Council majority said they want it open during all park hours, from 5am to 10pm.
Greg Hagen, who lives on Starlight, is part of the group suing the City over the gate. Greg recently spoke about the lawsuit and its cost, saying his group tried working with the City but “the Mayor has dug in her heels on this issue. Our only option was to use legal means, which has been expensive. It has cost us over $50,000 just to get a seat at the table.”
Another resident, Judy Ogata, agreed saying, “The city council voted to take private property from constituents, use that property in an improper way to violate their own Major Use Permit and [the] neighbors had to sue them to get the city even to listen. Whether in favor of a gate or not, would anyone appreciate this behavior if it was happening to them?”
Jeff Taylor owns one of the homes on Somerset that has been severely impacted by the park and he’s concerned about a gate that would be just a few feet from his driveway. Jeff lives in the house his father built and he remembers the area when there were fewer homes and when Somerset Avenue went all the way through to Santa Fe Drive. His troubles started when the City purchased the Hall property. A survey showed that Jeff’s pool (built by his father) was actually on the Hall property, now City property. The City said Jeff had to buy the 30’ wide strip of disputed land and charged him $50,000. Jeff was able to negotiate this down to $25,000, but the whole experience left him bitter.
Then the park wall was built around two sides of his property. Although the documents showed it was to be 6 feet high (72 inches) which would provide security and privacy, the north side wall is only 52 inches tall, or 20 inches below the required 6 feet. He tried to get the City and the project’s general contractor to increase the wall height to 6 feet but lost that one too. Then, when the wall was finished, the grading began and soon a large hill emerged behind Jeff’s house. The contractor said the hill was needed to facilitate drainage. But, now Jeff’s backyard privacy was gone and when the park opened, people walking by had a clear and open view into every single window on the back side of his house.
Since the park went in and the wall was built, Jeff has seen firsthand what it will be like living next to a gate: increased traffic of all types at all hours. Even without a gate, parents drive up in front of his home and drop their kids so they can jump the low section of wall next to him and enter the park. Others ride their bikes to this area, ditch them in the bushes, then climb the wall, coming back later for their bikes. He often sees people driving around his dead-end street looking for the park, sometimes using his driveway to turn around. Jeff’s neighbor, Dave, remembers when an event was happening at the park and he was leaving his house but discovered he couldn’t back out of his driveway because a park-goer had parked in front of it and he was stuck for a while.
There are a few in Cardiff who want a southern gate. They typically have small children and see an advantage to easier access from their homes. They would rather walk directly to the park via a gate at Somerset than down the steep hill of Warwick and enter through the Bach gate, although the distance is the same to the playground area. Mayor Blakespear also supports a gate here. In a shared correspondence between the Mayor and Cerc Schwaebe (who is opposed to any gate) Blakespear said, “I support an access point into the ECP from the south side of the park. There are some parks with no walls around them at all, for example, Glen Park in Cardiff and Central Park in NYC.”
The school district is not currently involved in the planning and is not pressing for the gate. Superintendent Jill Vinson said, “Safe routes to school are always a priority for the district. At this time, the City has taken the responsibility to determine the most viable solution.”