Battle lines have been drawn through a Half Moon Bay neighborhood over plans by housing developers to install a fence at the end of Highland Avenue and cut off a popular shortcut to the local high school.
Saying she had little option in the matter, Half Moon Bay Planning Director Pat Webb granted permits for the fence at a public meeting last week. But a coalition of families living nearby pledged they would split the cost to appeal the decision to the city Planning Commission.
The controversy over the fence centers on the larger traffic problems at Half Moon Bay High School and its nearby network of bottlenecked city streets. For years, students and families would use Highland Avenue as a sort of backdoor to the school, allowing them to circumvent the line of cars driving up to the main campus entrance on Lewis Foster Drive. Taking the alternative route, students would hike less than 100 feet along an open piece of private property at the end of the street to the back of the school’s baseball field.
The growing popularity of this shortcut has alarmed Ailanto Properties, the owner of the vacant plot. Speaking at the meeting on Sept. 26, Ailanto spokesman John Ward said having dozens of students and others regularly trespass on the property had to stop because his company was liable for any injuries that might occur on the property.
He described it as only a matter of time before someone is injured on the property. He pointed out that the hillside was becoming more than just a shortcut to the school. Neighborhood kids had built a tree fort and were beginning to play with paintball guns on the property, he said. Other supporters for the fence said two transients had camped there and that there were signs of drug use and fireworks on the property.
“Is it reasonable for the landowner to sustain long-term liability by turning a blind eye to this access?” Ward said. “This is long overdue. We’ve been fortunate that no one has been injured.”
Several families along the Highland Avenue area urged planning officials to find some compromise other than a fence, saying it would worsen an already terrible traffic problem. Losing that access would force students living practically next door to the high school to travel about a mile down to Highway 1 and around to Lewis Foster Drive, they argued. Driving that route would mean waiting in traffic, particularly while trying to make a turn from Terrace Avenue onto the highway.
“Traffic is horrible. Do I want any of my children on that highway? No!” said Michelle Kermani Sutton, a resident near Highland Avenue. “I can’t imagine having to go to Highway 1 to get to the high school.”
The city of Half Moon Bay recently installed another fence line along the Beachwood property just to the north of Terrace Avenue, blocking another shortcut used by high school students. City officials at the time said the fence was needed to prevent illegal dumping and to protect the property.
A representative from the Cabrillo Unified School District observed the planning meeting last week, but school officials have been careful to stay out of the conflict.
“The district itself has no specific position one way or another except to say we know this will cause an inconvenience for students and families,” said CUSD Superintendent Tony Roehrick. “We’re interested in working with the neighborhood on finding a solution, but we’re not going to be at the forefront of that solution.”
The traffic problems at Terrace Avenue have long been associated with the proposed Ailanto subdivision. The company first acquired the land in 1985 with the goal to build more than 200 homes in the hills behind the high school. Those plans became locked for decades in contentious rounds of land-use lawsuits and political intransigence. By 2004, the city and Ailanto representatives agreed in a court settlement that the project could move forward if it was scaled down to 63 homes and the company paid to put in a traffic signal at Terrace Avenue. For years afterward, many nearby residents waged a campaign to stop the signal, some seeing it as a way to prevent the subdivision from being built.
Ailanto representatives said if they can find the financing they will begin building the new homes and the Terrace Avenue signal next year with the goal to complete it by 2014. Project designer Lucie Gibson said there were no plans to put in an access route to the high school.