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San Diego’s Biggest Park Gets Even Bigger

Evening Edition

One of the biggest urban parks in the United States is about to get bigger. Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego will be adding more than a thousand acres next year. It’s the latest chapter in the story of building an open-space park through decades of deals with developers and the U.S. government. KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge has the story.

Aired 12/21/12 on KPBS News.

The addition of 1,300 acres is the latest chapter in the story of Mission Trails Regional Park.

Mission Trails Park is what San Diego used to be. Its 5,800 acres of mountains and river valley let people imagine a countryside that is untouched by modern life. And now, Mission Trails will add another piece of wilderness in the city, as one of biggest urban parks in the United States will get even bigger.

Matt Sanford, senior ranger of Mission Trails Park, stands in front of a piece of open space that will make San Diego's biggest park even bigger.

"It's been really untouched for a long, long time. And it's a really nice section of open space out here," said Matt Sanford, senior park ranger for Mission Trails Regional Park.

The land he's talking about is about 1,300 acres of now privately owned land. It's just north of an undeveloped part of Miramar Air Station and East of I-15. In the coming few months it will become city property, and part of Mission Trails Park. It’s the kind of place where you can hear only the wind, and see layers of mountain peaks recede into the distance.

It's also the latest chapter in the story of building an open-space park through decades of deals with developers and the U.S. government.

So far, the land has been equipped with a parking lot and six miles of hiking trails. These 1,300 acres are not contiguous with the existing Mission Trails Park. In fact there's about ten miles that separate the park from this area.

So how are people going to even know it's Mission Trails? Dorothy Leonard says they’ll put up a big sign.

Leonard is a former San Diego planning commissioner who has been called the Mother of Mission Trails for her decades of work acquiring the parkland. She said she and her husband like to come to the park at 6 a.m., to get the best feeling of being away from the city. Still, its proximity to the city is one of the park's great virtues.

"It's close to downtown. It's a people's park. It was started by citizens like myself working with elected officials," she said.

Leonard said Mission Trails Park began with the city’s purchase of Cowles Mountain in 1974. Later, the city added to the park the Mission Gorge area, where the San Diego River flows, and Lake Murray and its surroundings.

There's a grassland in Mission Trails, which was once military land. It was called Camp Elliot. In fact they still search the land for unexploded shells. Acquiring land from the U.S. military is just one of the ways Mission Trails has been cobbled together over the years.

The history of Mission Trails includes a multitude of deals, cut with the neighboring civilization. The acres being added next year are walking distance from a new development called Stonebridge Estates. That’s not surprising, since the city is getting the new parkland from the developer, in return for allowing the housing to be built.

Jim Madaffer represented the Mission Trails area on the City Council during the past decade. That's when developer Corky McMillan wanted to start building homes.

"And I thought why don't we figure out a way to allow McMillan to do what they want to do,” said Madaffer. “They can provide future housing for new residents or people who want to move up, and at the same time be able to add to our open space."

As the city plans to add those northern acres next year, it's also planning to add another 2,800 acres just north of the existing park. But doing that depends on dealing with a landfill.

The Sycamore Landfill, owned by Republic Services, is in the center of that additional block of open space, across Highway 52. Landfill manager Neil Mohr said in about 30 years the landfill will be closed. He hopes it will also become part of the park.

"What we're really working toward is a closure plan. And we're trying to blend it in with the surrounding hills and we're re-vegetating it,” said Mohr.“

“So when we're ultimately finished, we'd like to be available for the hiking trail to come right to where we are here, connect down and on top of the landfill, and see it as a network adding to Mission Trails Regional Park," he said.

For now, ranger Matt Sanford said he and his staff have to think about eradicating non-native plants and maintaining trails on the new property. Jim Madaffer said San Diegans should remember that expanding open space comes at a cost.

"You can always say God has taken care of it just fine all these years,” said Madaffer. “But you've got to prevent off-roading, you've got to protect the public. You've got to tell them about rattlesnakes. Let them know about unexploded ordinance. Let them know about issues in the park."

San Diego was recently ranked in the top ten, among American city park systems, mainly because of its impressive acreage. Mission Trails is the city's biggest park. So you have to say it's helped put San Diego parks on the map.

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Avatar for user 'mam564'

mam564 | December 22, 2012 at 12:11 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Avatar for user 'mam564'

mam564 | December 22, 2012 at 11:15 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

I find it unfortunate that you removed my previous post. The truth is Lake Murray is not legally incorporated into any city park owned by the city of San Diego. If you want the truth ask the San Diego city council, the mayor or Lane Mackenzie at the San Diego Real Estate Asset Dept. The city owns the water contained in Lake Murray and 1/3 rd of the land Lake Murray lies upon. The other 2/3rds is privately owned and has been in my family since 1887.

Merrilee Miller, Goleta, CA. - owner on title - APN: 674-010-04-00 & 674-010-09-00.

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Avatar for user 'Claire Trageser'

Claire Trageser, KPBS Staff | December 22, 2012 at 2:51 p.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

Hi Merrilee,

Our system usually automatically rejects comments that are just links, because people try to post spam to our website that way. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and sorry your earlier comment was weeded out.

Best, Claire

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Avatar for user 'mam564'

mam564 | December 22, 2012 at 3:14 p.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

Greetings Claire,

Thank you for the clarification and thank you for letting me share my thoughts. Our family just wants the truth to be known.

Best regards,

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Avatar for user 'Retha Knight'

Retha Knight | December 27, 2012 at 4:13 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

The Mother of Mission Trails may want to take a stand against the Quail Brush Power Plant before she is known as the destroyer of MTRP and all the good she has done over the years is erased in the minds of San Diegan's!
Jim Madaffer's wife, Robin Munro Madaffer, is a lobbiest for Cogenetrix, the North Carolina company that has proposed building the Quail Brush Power Plant on the border of MTRP right across from the Equestrian Center at MTRP (where many of the fun runs are held).
This billion dollar corperation, Cogentrix, if allowed, will destroy the open space park land of MTRP that thousands of San Diegans love and use every day! Who in their right mind would want to do any type of outdoor activity at a regional park that has the "added feature" of a natural gas generated power plant with 11 smokestacks spewing hundreds of tons of TOXIC AIR POLLUTANTS into the air? Will this new "added feature" be included on the MTRP website and brochures if built? How much more added air pollution are you willing to breath? How can anyone who loves MTRP and
San Diego sit on their hands and accept the permanent destruction of one of our most precious resources, Mission Trails Regional Park? Our quality of life is worth fighting for!
The fight is not over! As the CEC puts it, "CEQA on Steroids" can override the San Diego City Council’s re-zone denial and override San Diego's LORS.
Help mobilize public outcry against the proposed Quail Brush power plant to create mass public opposition to the project.

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Avatar for user 'Retha Knight'

Retha Knight | December 27, 2012 at 4:35 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

The California Public Utitlies Commission (CPUC) vote on the SDG&E application for Quail Brush and two other gas plants in San Diego County has been rescheduled to January 10. This gives us time to get more Letters to the CPUC supporting their proposed decision rejecting these fossil fuel plants as not needed!
Have you emailed the CPUC? The more people who voice support of the CPUC draft decision, the better. You can count on Cogentrix and the other corporate lobbyists to be pushing for their profits. For links to the CPUC, please go to: Go to Save Mission Trails . Org

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Avatar for user 'mop'

mop | December 28, 2012 at 7:55 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

The unfortunate side of this entire story is that aside from the Cowles mountain trails (which themselves are fairly unsustainable) a majority of the "trails" in MTRP are not trails at all, rather they are old jeep roads. I believe the hired contractors working on the master plan stated that over 70% of the trails are not sustainable nor do they meet "trail" requirements. They are not ADA accessible (try taking a wheelchair through 3" blue rock or up an 18% grade).
Beyond this, a 1 million + equestrian facility exists that is largely unused, horse pens sit empty, day in and day out and this facility continues to be built upon. Recently a 500K+ "building" was built on site labeled as the "equestrian staging facility", which was renamed to a "comfort staging area" after there was public outcry concerning the minimal use by equestrians. How many of the park users are equestrians? Under .01%.
I'll add that many of the antenna funds are being used for such projects with absolutely zero public input.
MTRP is truly a gem but it hasn't acquired the nickname of "missing trails regional park" for no reason. Outside of Cowles, the "trails" aren't trails at all, they are roads and poor roads at that.
Last, obtaining ground use permits in the park skirt on extortion. On the application for a ground use permit, in a public park, it asks if you will be "make a donation to the MTRP foundation, how much and when?" Since when, in a public facility, when applying for a use permit, is it fair to ask (prior to the permit being granted) if you will make a monetary donation.
On bettergivingsd(dot)guidestar(dot)org you can search for and see the entire MTRP financial history. I think anyone who takes a good look at the form 990 may raise an eyebrow or two.

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Avatar for user 'Steveg3153'

Steveg3153 | January 12, 2013 at 2:05 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

It is also little known that the City is unethically acquiring private East Elliott parcels to expand the park. East Elliott is in the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP). The MSCP explicitly allows owners to develop 25% of their property in exchange for giving the City, at no charge, 75% of their property for conservation. But the City, and park expansion advocates, want the whole area to expand Mission Trails Regional Park. So the City, in 1997, re-wrote the Community Plan eliminating residential development. The City then formulated a policy to reduce the zoning from 1 dwelling unit per 40, 000 square feet (about 1-acre) to 1 dwelling unit per parcel. The owners are effectively restricted from development. A fundamental tenet of the MSCP is to protect private property rights. An MSCP provision, intended to prevent private property owners from having to give up all their land for conservation, is that the City can only buy property from "willing sellers". After decades of holding and paying taxes on land the City restricts from development, the City then offers despairing owners to buy their property at low valuations. In the City's rationalization, the City is buying property from "willing sellers". The park is already the largest such intra-city park in California. It is one of the largest in the nation. But park advocates control the reins of City government. They seek unlimited park expansion. The park is minimally used. This is happening under our noses. It is a story that deserves the light of day.

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Avatar for user 'pattymooney'

pattymooney | January 14, 2013 at 1:44 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

This is a lovely piece about Mission Trails but it was missing two things: 1) how are park managers going to connect the new land acquisitions with existing parkland? and 2) as rfkr mentions above, a core group of concerned citizens has been fighting to protect Mission Trails from North Carolina company Cogentrix over the last year. Sempra Energy engaged Cogentrix to build a fossil-fuel power plant right alongside Mission Trails. And many of us would like to know: Who made Sempra "God"????? Since when does Sempra have the authority to do whatever they want on San Diego's precious outback (and don't even get me started on the Sunrise Power Link! In fact, wasn't the Power Link supposed to cure all of our energy woes?)

Just imagine walking your dog or taking a hike out at Mission Trails on a lovely sunny day, and stopping for a snack on that bench overlooking Mission Dam on Father Junipero Serra. Or imagine you have spent an hour climbing up to the top of Cowles Mountain, as hundreds of people do every day. By the way, for anyone to claim that "the park is minimally used" could not be further from the truth, especially if you've ever been to the Cowles Mountain trailhead on a Sunday morning.

From many various vantage points, you'll be able to see that power plant like 11 middle fingers jutting up in your direction, as though to say, "F--- you, sucker. You didn't stop this asinine project when you had the chance. And now you get to see me, hear me, smell me and face some terrible health risks because I'll be spewing tons of particulates into your air for years to come. Oh well, you must have been too busy to care."

If you DO care, then go to to learn what you can do to stop the Quail Brush Power Plant.

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Avatar for user 'Steveg3153'

Steveg3153 | January 14, 2013 at 5:04 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Patty: Even with the use of Cowles Mountain on Sunday morning, the park is minimally used. Compare it to Mission Bay Park and Balboa Park. If you have contrary statistics, feel free to post them.

The minmal use of the park is the subtext to the core issue, which is the mis-application of the MSCP to restrict owner use so the City can purchase the property.

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