November 16, 2023 News
The coveted missing puzzle piece required to finish the Bob Jones city-to-sea trail remains elusive to San Luis Obispo County officials.
So much so that county staff developed alternatives to change the scope of the 30-year-old project altogether, ones that don’t rely on eminent domain—an issue that has kept the Bob Jones trail from moving forward and closing a 4.5-mile gap between the Octagon Barn and the Ontario Road parking lot.
Eminent domain—power afforded to governments to take private property for public use and reimburse the landowner for its value—is something that 1st and 5th District Supervisors John Peschong and Debbie Arnold have been wary of.
At the Nov. 7 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, Peschong recused himself because he received a political campaign donation of more than $250 from the Bunnell family, which owns one of the pieces of land that could help bridge the gap.
Arnold maintained that she’s not in favor of exercising eminent domain because it doesn’t comply with the county general plan.
“I heard you all today, and I’ll be just as excited when we get this problem solved, but I don’t think that [we should use] eminent domain, especially when we’ve worked it out as a community way back when that we would not use it for trail establishment,” she said. “Giving property owners along desirable trails ease of mind, I just don’t think it’s time to change our mind on that when we’re midway through.”
In construction since the 1990s, the Bob Jones Trail aims to connect the city of SLO to Avila Beach. The county has tried to acquire land to complete the trail, but has run into issues with private property owners who aren’t keen on giving up their land.
In 2021, SLO County received an Active Transportation Program state grant through the California Transportation Commission worth $18.2 million to close the gap. Officials had to spend all of that money by 2025, and an extension request filed by the county Parks and Recreation Department last year pushed the timeline to 2027.
“However, the requirement to award a construction contract is February 2025, and this is the more critical timeline we are concerned about meeting, which is why it was discussed in the board update on Nov. 7,” County Counsel Rita Neal told New Times via email.
One of the stumbling blocks preventing the trail’s completion is right of way issues stemming from Ray Bunnell’s property, which lies along the proposed pathway. Bunnell has consistently refused to donate or sell easements to the county for the trail. His refusal culminated with the county suing him in 2021 for not allowing access to his land for soil-boring tests necessary to design one of the trail’s bridges.
Later that year, Bunnell and three others who owned large land parcels along the proposed connector—Robert Kruse, Edward Pollard, and James Warren—shot back with a lawsuit of their own.
According to prior New Times reporting, their lawsuit detailed that if the Bob Jones Trail connector went into place on their lands, the SLO Creek corridor on Bunnell’s property would be impacted by “homeless encampments, garbage, fire danger, and noise and dust pollution.” The other properties would “suffer serious, irreparable damage” in the “loss of the legal right of access to some or all of the agriculture properties” via an existing “cattle trail easement.”
Eminent domain rears its head in the landowners’ lawsuit, which claims that the county imposing such power would violate its own general plan and the trail’s 2015 environmental impact report.
Neal told New Times that litigation on both sides is presently paused. It can only resume if the county adopts a “resolution of necessity,” which is the first formal step to exert eminent domain.
She confirmed that while trail easement across private parties may only be obtained from a willing seller or donor as part of a specific plan or as a condition of a project approval, that policy could change.
“The board could at any time amend its parks and recreation element to modify this policy statement since it is a land use and planning tool,” Neal said. “The board still has the authority to use its eminent domain powers to acquire a trail easement by eminent domain since the county cannot bind future boards from exercising its statutory powers of eminent domain simply through a policy in the county’s general plan.”
Many community members gave public comments in favor of eminent domain, asserting that closing the gap would make for a safer trail.
Jennifer Horstman-Chase—the widow of Damian Horstman who was killed in a 2012 truck collision while riding his bike at the intersection of South Higuera Street and Ontario Road—urged the board to finish the trail.
“The roadway is unsafe, not because of how it is being used, but how it was designed, and it will be until it is fixed,” she said. “Users whether on foot, on bike, or in a car are across oncoming freeway-speed traffic and it’s unsafe.”
Public Works and Parks and Rec presented alternative ways to close the gap without constructing on the Bunnell property. Those options are a phased approach called the bookends alternative, and a complete gap closure project called the bypass alternative.
The bypass method will slightly shift the proposed trail off the Bunnell property onto the U.S. 101 shoulder, which is the Caltrans right of way.
The bookends alternative ends the proposed trail in two parts north and south of the Bunnell property. Public Works Director John Diodati announced at the meeting that this approach would complete most of the project and enable the county to spend the $18.2 million grant within the timeline.
“[The bookends] would have to become destinations because this isn’t full gap closure, so we’d have to have some sort of experience while we’re waiting for Phase 2 to be complete,” he said.
Phase 2 involves completing the rest of the broken trail when the county can obtain right of way from the landowners. Diodati told New Times that the county is actively negotiating with the affected property owners who possess land along the proposed trail.
In a 4-0 vote, with Peschong recusing himself, the supervisors approved staff working with Caltrans to apply for a project scope change with the transportation commission and continue working on the final design and acquiring right of way from the landowners. Δ
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