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Trail connection? SLO County moves closer to initiating eminent domain proceedings over Bob Jones Trail easements

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San Luis Obispo County officials determinedly stuck to their original plans to connect the long-fragmented Bob Jones city-to-sea trail.

On May 21, the Board of Supervisors abandoned its pursuit of alternative ways to close the 4.5-mile gap between the existing portions of the Bob Jones Trail without building on a portion of private property.

BIKE SAFETY Connecting the Bob Jones Trail from San Luis Obispo to the Ontario Road entrance will save lives, Friends of the Bob Jones Trail President Helene Finger said. - COVER PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Cover Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • BIKE SAFETY Connecting the Bob Jones Trail from San Luis Obispo to the Ontario Road entrance will save lives, Friends of the Bob Jones Trail President Helene Finger said.

"We cannot have safe routes ... for our electric bikes, for transport for workers, for our tourism business," 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said at the meeting. "This is why everybody and their brother want to see ... this multi-modal trail to be able to be utilized from South County all the way up through San Luis into Cal Poly."

In a 3-1 vote with 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold dissenting, the supervisors agreed to withdraw the scope change application with the California Transportation Commission. First District Supervisor John Peschong recused himself because he received a political campaign donation of more than $250 from the Bunnell family—an owner of one of the pieces of land that can bridge the gap between the Octagon Barn and the Ontario Road parking lot.

The move eliminated the possibility of shifting the proposed trail section onto Ontario Road, avoiding the Bunnell property. The county presented that plan as a scope change option, which swapped out the preferred Class I bike lanes to Class II bike lanes by narrowing traffic lanes to accommodate them. It left Caltrans and the transportation commission staff with safety concerns.

"Unfortunately, since the scope change eliminates approximately 2 miles of a Class I pathway and proposes to replace it with Class II lanes, this does not meet the safety benefits of the original grant proposal," the county staff report said.

While the county started constructing the Bob Jones Trail in the 1990s, it's running out of time to use up an $18.25 million grant from the transportation commission's Active Transportation Program to finish the project. Though the SLO County Parks and Recreation Department secured an expenditure deadline extension of 2027, that money must be used to award a construction contract in February 2025.

Right-of-way issues caused the trail's completion to move at a snail's pace. Specifically, property owner Ray Bunnell and roughly six landowners refuse to sell their easements that lie along the proposed pathway to the county.

"The land in question is an integral portion of an operating ranch," Bunnell attorney Edwin Rambuski told New Times. "A recreational trail adjacent to and through the ranch is not compatible with agricultural operations."

Rambuski added that a trail bridge on Bunnell's portion of the land will cause flooding on the ranch, in the horse boarding barn, and in the facilities. An estimated annual 100,000 trail users will damage the fences on the ranch, he said, leading to horses and livestock wandering onto the streets and highway.

Bunnell is also concerned about the homeless encampment on the Bob Jones Trail section in SLO, according to his lawyer.

"These camps create a serious fire danger for the Bunnell ranch and the Baron Canyon subdivision," Rambuski said.

Bunnell has remained adamant about not selling his easement since county officials approached him to discuss the 4.5-mile gap approximately 15 years ago. His denial culminated in 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 Robert Kruse, Edward Pollard, and James Warren—three other owners of large land parcels along the proposed connector—retaliated with a lawsuit of their own that detailed the concerns Rambuski mentioned.

Now, the application of eminent domain—power afforded to governments to take private property for public use and reimburse the landowner for its value—looms over Bunnell.

The Board of Supervisors asked county staff to return with right-of-way agreements with willing landowners along the proposed trail. There are 19 properties owned by 14 people in total, according to Public Works Director John Diodati.

"If we don't have a signed and recorded easement for trail use [from] anyone that hasn't been willing to sell property for that purpose or allow us to acquire it, we would start the process of acquiring them through eminent domain, and that first step would be the resolution of necessity," Diodati said.

The county's top priority is to collect as many right-of-way agreements as possible and persistently negotiate with landowners, which staff is currently working on. Rambuski told New Times that as of June 7 that he hadn't heard from the county yet. He said that Bunnell, who favored the proposed trail shift onto Ontario Road, would like to see the grant money used for trail completion.

However, he said, even with the grant, the county still must meet the difference of the total $28 million needed to complete the project. The county hopes to work with the SLO Council of Governments to find regional transportation funding outside of county money.

Proponents of completing the Bob Jones Trail as planned highlight the safety benefits of the finished route. According to previous New Times reporting, 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.

PURSUING COMPLETION Connecting the Bob Jones Trail from San Luis Obispo to the trailhead on Ontario Road (pictured) could involve eminent domain of four of the 19 properties the county is seeking trail-access easements for. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • PURSUING COMPLETION Connecting the Bob Jones Trail from San Luis Obispo to the trailhead on Ontario Road (pictured) could involve eminent domain of four of the 19 properties the county is seeking trail-access easements for.

Helene Finger, the president of Friends of the Bob Jones Trail, told New Times that the finished corridor holds multiple benefits that outweigh the impact on private property.

A connected Bob Jones Trail will be a reliable way for South County residents to commute to SLO and also address fire safety issues, she said.

"It will provide access to fight wildfires in one of the most severe fire hazard zones in the county, adjacent to Highway 101, the most common source of fires in the county," Finger said. "It also provides a northern evacuation route for Baron Canyon residents and everyone who lives off Monte Road. Without this project, firefighting response and evacuation may be delayed and could be disastrous if a fire precludes use of Monte Road."

She added that the finished trail will also serve as a fire break. In the event of a fire along Highway 101, firefighters can shift over to the trail. They can go down the trail as a fire break and stop any spread of that fire between 101 and the houses that are behind the trail and up to the Baron Canyon area, according to Finger.

"Delaying this project, on the other hand, puts hundreds of thousands ... at risk for injury or death from wildfire or being hit while traveling by bike between home and school or work," Finger said. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

Clarification: This story was updated to specify that in the event of a fire along Highway 101, firefighters can shift over to the Bob Jones Trail.

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