Proposed Salinas River Trail ain't all sunshine



Grand plans for a trail to create public access along the Salinas River may get tangled up in barbed wire.

Locals raised concerns at the Oct. 22 Atascadero City Council meeting when the council discussed the Atascadero leg of the Salinas River Trail, a project in the works by San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) that will follow the river and create a continuous path from Santa Margarita to Paso Robles, linking existing trails with proposed trails along the way.

SLOCOG, whose board is comprised of members from each city in the county and county officials, is creating the trail as part of the agency’s goal to better link communities and access between them.

At the meeting, Atascadero residents living along the Salinas River aired worries that the trail’s side effects would include trespassing and an increase in unwanted or dangerous parking along roads and in fields.

“It’s not a parking lot,” south Atascadero resident Karen Gifford told the council. “It’s not available for public use. It’s our homes. It’s where we have our gardens. It’s where we have our livestock.”

Gifford lives on Chispa Road in south Atascadero. It runs along the river and railroad tracks and is relatively tucked away; there’s only one road that leads in and out from El Camino. Many residents along the road have livestock, and chose the area for its privacy.

Sycamore Road-dwellers, too, lent their voices in defense of their road that runs along the river near Highway 41. One resident explained that the whole reason he lives on a dead-end road is because he doesn’t want people around his property, a comment that drew applause.

Property owners along the river spoke of existing problems with people using the watercourse, including visitors parking horse trailers on their land, along curves in the road, or even in fields where feed crops are grown—all issues that they say will only increase once the trail is created.

The Salinas River has been a long-time hotspot for certain kinds of recreation. Water is underground most of the year, leaving a dry, flat river bottom. The soft sand makes it popular among equestrians.

But the terrain and accessibility also makes it a popular place for off-roading and partying, meaning loud noises in the night and a trail of beer cans and bottles in the morning. All of this has residents nervous that an advertised trail would only increase the frequency of such activities.

Much of the accessible areas along the trail have existing connections, are on county or state property, or are along the Atascadero Mutual Water Company’s property. Residents at the meeting said it would be unclear to visitors where the new trail runs and how it interacts with private property.

“They see a map and they assume they have the rights to travel there,” said Chispa Road resident Warren Voss, adding that he keeps his bulls on a part of his property that the trail would abut. “All it takes is one kid to walk up to the fence and get clobbered by a 2,000-pound animal, and I got a lawsuit on my hands.”

Mayor Tom O’Malley, who sits on the SLOCOG Board, was confident that the concerns could be addressed.

“We’re not here to talk about private property. We’re here to talk about public access,” O’Malley said. “I realize there’s some issues with people wandering around out there.”

Atascadero is looking at the plan and will give input to the SLOCOG board, which will hear a finalized plan in December. In response to the public’s concerns, O’Malley scheduled the council to hold a “pre-meeting” before its regularly scheduled meeting on Nov 12.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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