Council issues conditional support for Manchester Ave. underpass


The Encinitas City Council recently warmed up to the idea of an underpass and parking lot on part of the Manchester Avenue strawberry fields.

At the June 11 meeting, the council noted long-standing reservations, but ultimately agreed to support the project in a letter to the California Coastal Commission.

The agency will review Caltrans’ plans for the Interstate 5 corridor in August.

However, council’s backing comes with conditions: notably, Caltrans must preserve some of the strawberry fields for agriculture or open space in perpetuity.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said she’s received emails from residents who want the land to remain for agriculture.

However, she said the grandfathered-in strawberry fields are currently zoned as residential. So, nothing is stopping the property owners from developing the land.

“The city can’t really force them to stay agricultural,” she said, adding Caltrans could protect some of the land.

The strawberry fields measure about 30 acres, and the Manchester project would take around eight of those acres. But Caltrans intends to buy most of the land.

The underpass, known as a direct-access ramp (DAR), is designed to alleviate congestion for cars trying to enter I-5 from Manchester Avenue.

It would funnel car poolers, buses and solo drivers willing to pay a fee directly into I-5 express lanes. And those driving in the express lanes could also exit via the DAR.

For the planned I-5 widening, Caltrans intends to add four express lanes — two lanes in each direction — in North County.

The 150-space Park and Ride, next to the DAR, aims to promote carpooling, as well as bicycling. It would connect with a planned bike path running parallel to the freeway and feature bike lockers.

San Diego resident Tom Alvin, who owns part of the strawberry fields, could not be reached for comment regarding the Caltrans proposal.

The council said its support is also contingent on Caltrans following through with: the bike path; mitigation for impacts to the San Elijo Lagoon; and phasing projects at the same time to avoid traffic issues.

Councilwoman Teresa Barth said originally plans called for the DAR to complement rapid buses on Manchester Avenue. However, when the buses were scrapped, she was reluctant to support the DAR.

Yet council’s conditions were enough to win her support.

“We’re OK with the DAR as long as we get what’s promised,” she said.

During a meeting in April, council members worried the DAR could draw more traffic to El Camino Real and Manchester Avenue.

A Caltrans representative at the June 11 meeting said a 2007 traffic study analyzing the area actually showed the opposite.

The Manchester proposal is included in Caltrans’ $6.5 billion package of rail, freeway and lagoon improvements for the I-5 corridor. Funding would be drawn from state and federal sources.

Should the Coastal Commission sign off on the I-5 proposal, construction could begin for some projects by next year. The DAR and parking lot are scheduled in the 2020 to 2030 timeframe.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar noted the Coastal Commission will also have to weigh in on whether Proposition A applies to the DAR and Park and Ride. Prop A requires that major rezone requests go to a public vote.