California Residents Balk At Path to Their Back Door

San Diego County park runs into property-owner rights movement

FAR from brass-rail malls of metropolitan San Diego, up gnarled back-country roads to an elevation of 3,000 feet, lies Santa Ysabel -- a one-intersection hamlet known for its picturesque cattle ranches and Dudley's bakery.

A decade ago, Ed Bolen bought land here so that he could live in seclusion with his wife and two sons. ''I worked 50 years to get on the back side of a 'no trespassing' sign,'' Mr. Bolen says.

He now sees that half-century of labor threatened by a hikers' trail stretching from the coast to his backyard. Bolen and other residents are fighting to keep a planned 55-mile public park along the San Dieguito River off their land.

The sagebrush squabble here echoes numerous property-rights battles erupting across the nation. For years, nature lovers, conservationists, and environmentalists have been moving to rope off areas to development. But in federal and state legislatures, land-policy experts say, the political mood is now swinging more toward landowners.

The passions run particularly deep in San Diego, a community that is environmentally sensitive but also politically conservative.

''All across the land there is a change in how private-property rights are being looked at,'' says Jack Gibson, a leader of the roughly 200-member land owners' group here calling themselves Citizens for Private Property Rights.

Lawmakers are focusing on compensating property owners when government actions diminish their property values. Many rural landowners, in areas such as northern California's Salinas River and the Columbia River in Washington State, face what they view as interference from big-city land-use planners.

Here in Santa Ysabel, residents are working to exclude all or at least part of the proposed 80,000-acre park that includes their properties. More than two-thirds of the planned park is on publicly owned land.

Advocates of the San Diego County park want the trail here to achieve their vision of a ''coast to crest'' nature preserve. They say the landowners are misinformed and that the owners' property values and rights are not at risk.

''Our only interest would be [to create] a simple dirt trail ... to reach the source of the river,'' says Diane Coombs, executive director of the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority (JPA). The agency, charged with developing the park, was created in 1989 by the county and several cities through which the park would pass. ''The trail will not be implemented without the property owners' consent,'' Ms. Coombs says.

The two sides are schedule to meet next month. But tensions are running high.

Meeting over cookies one night last week, members of Mr. Gibson's group said there could be no compromise on the ''sacred'' national principle of property rights.

Among the group's concerns:

r Some land will be purchased under local governments' eminent domain powers if owners do not want to sell. (Owners are compensated at ''fair market value.'')

r Park users will start fires or leave trash.

r Park officials will curtail new development on private lands within its ''viewshed.''

r The park will not have money to adequately police the trail.

Concerns over the use of eminent domain are bolstered by the 1991 condemnation of a handful of properties for the park downstream, near the city of Poway.

Coombs insists that the JPA and city and county governments have no plans to use eminent domain in the Santa Ysabel area. Money is tight.

In 1988, California voters passed Proposition 70, a $776-million bond measure to create open spaces. The San Dieguito park got $10 million. But it needs more. Last year a state ballot measure to double funds for open spaces failed.

One way around the JPA purchasing land, experts say, would be to secure an easement. When property owners apply to the county or state to develop their land, authorities could withhold approval until landowners give the park an easement for the trail.

Still, Coombs defends eminent domain as necessary to complete public projects ranging from landfills to highways.

Nationwide, eminent domain has only been used in about 8 percent of state or locally owned parks, says Keith Gilges of the National Recreation and Parks Association in Washington.

Support for the park has been strong in the San Diego area.

The region's largest newspaper, the generally conservative San Diego Union-Tribune, recently called the park concept ''too good to sacrifice.''

But the property owners have won the ear of at least two of the county's five-member Board of Supervisors. One idea under discussion is to limit the park's width in that region to a 1,000-foot corridor. The board is due to revisit the issue in June.

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