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Dirt paths run through Fox Canyon, connecting two streets in City Heights that are 300 feet from one another as the bird flies, but more than a mile apart by car. A proposed extension of Ontario Avenue has drawn praise from nearby community leaders for connecting the not-so-distant Auburn Drive and Winona Avenue, which are only linked by the informal paths.

But others in the neighborhood believe the street’s construction through Fox Canyon will pave over an area that they see as a vital component of a proposed park – a flat, creekside swath of land. They say the road will render the use of the open space worthless and harm to the environment. The critics also say that the public – and perhaps the state – may have been duped into designing a road to facilitate nearby development, using money that was set aside for the proposed adjacent park.

On Tuesday at 2 p.m., the San Diego City Council will consider the development. However, they will only be asked to consider whether the city staff’s environmental review of the proposed park and street development in Fox Canyon is adequate. Council members will likely hear an earful from both sides of this emotional debate.

At the core of the issue is how to best use the privately owned, 2.7-acre parcel, which is nestled in a patchwork of single-family homes and apartment buildings a few blocks south of the major thoroughfare in City Heights, University Avenue.

The controversy is born out of a chicken-and-egg quandary: whether the street was injected into the plans for a park project, or if the park was supplemental to a decades-old design for a road to run alongside Auburn Creek.

“We started with a street, we didn’t start with a park,” said Jose Lopez, president of the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association.

Lopez said the extension of Ontario Avenue across the foot of the canyon has been promised to residents there for decades. City staff noted that a 1925 planning document included the road, which has been one of San Diego’s many “paper streets” ever since.

“When the park project became a road project, that’s when this became problematic,” said John Stump, an attorney who represents Friends of Fox Canyon, the group appealing the city’s environmental approval.

Stump argued that the city’s application for a state parks grant for the area said nothing about a street. Additionally, extending Ontario Avenue – a sawed-off cul-de-sac that branches off Auburn Drive – into the Fox Canyon open space creates a new source for runoff into canyon’s Auburn Creek, he said. That creek flows into Chollas Creek and out to the San Diego Bay.

He also claimed that a road would negate much of the park’s usefulness and would only enable the development of hundreds of new low-income housing units – an extra environmental risk, Stump said.

Spearheading the proposal to build a 36-foot-wide road alongside Auburn Creek is Councilman Jim Madaffer, whose district includes the land in question. He said that he will be fair in considering the environmental appeal Tuesday. However, he has been called out by critics for trying to play too strong a role in the project’s progression.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre suggested in a memo Monday that Madaffer should recuse himself from Tuesday’s decision, but determined that the councilman could ultimately choose to participate if he liked.

The city attorney said that because Madaffer has been publicly advocating for the road, it is the councilman’s responsibility to handle lawsuits from attorneys from groups such as Friends of Fox Canyon. Such lawsuits could be brought as a result of his involvement in a quasi-judicial matter such as the environmental review, which is before the council, Aguirre said.

Madaffer said he is up to the challenge.

“I’m very anxious to make sure that the environmental document is adequate,” he said.

Madaffer said he is hoping that his council colleagues will be able to put aside the debate over the land’s usage and concentrate on the effectiveness of the environmental document. The councilman said that the park and the road should be considered two separate projects, although Stump argues that the two are linked in the environmental document that city staff prepared.

The councilman said he began pursuing the development of the park and the “paper road” on Fox Canyon land, which is private property, during his council candidacy in 2000. He said the City Heights region had been neglected for a long time, noting that the area didn’t have the adequate infrastructure that is enjoyed in other parts of San Diego

In late 2003, Madaffer and several other community leaders – including Lopez, then-Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe and former Superintendent Alan Bersin – asked city staff to apply for a grant that was available under the voter-approved Urban Park Act.

The state granted the city $2.3 million after reviewing the city’s application, which included plans for a shaded picnic area, a playground, a grassy area and landscaping. The application did not mention the construction of a road, California State Parks spokesman Roy Stearns said. Stearns said the state has since learned of the road and that it makes no difference in regards to the grant.

“Our understanding is that the road does not go through the park but along one side of the park and apparently does not impact the park itself,” Stearns said.

The comment letters submitted by the elected officials at the time also made no mention of the road, but new comment letters from Lopez and neighborhood educators express strong support for Ontario Avenue’s extension. They cite a study showing that a connector across the canyon will cut traffic by one-half in front of two nearby elementary schools.

Madaffer also submitted a new comment letter to the Planning Commission when that panel heard the environmental appeal in December. He included a passage that stated that late Councilman Charles Lewis and Councilmembers Tony Young and Toni Atkins, whose districts are near Fox Canyon, also supported the project.

A representative from Atkins’ office later appeared before the Planning Commission to clarify that assertion: The councilwoman supported the park but was “neutral” on the road.

Bob Ottilie, a member of the city’s Park and Recreation Board, said he sympathizes with the urban neighborhood’s deficiency of park space. And he said he couldn’t understand why there is a need for a road running through Fox Canyon.

A traffic engineer, the Fire Department and the Police Department were all neutral on the road’s addition, a staff member of the city’s Development Services Department said. The spokeswoman said that those offices would have visibly supported the proposed extension of Ontario Avenue had they really seen a need for it.

Ottilie said a 12-foot-wide cart path could provide access for city park trucks and public safety vehicles just as well as a 36-foot-wide street without blocking off access to the creek.

Additionally, Ottilie said the Park and Recreation Board took a look at the proposal last week and many of its members were concerned about the uncertainty of where the money that funded the road’s design came from. Ottilie said he shared those concerns with Madaffer and that he felt the councilman had accepted some criticisms and shrugged off others. Ottilie said he believed Madaffer was linking the fate of the park to that of the road.

“He seemed to be suggesting that if people thwarted the road, that his approach would be to can the park,” Ottilie said. “I didn’t understand that.”

Madaffer has insisted that he thinks the two are separate. He said the road and the park will help ignite redevelopment in Fox Canyon, which is part of the city’s Crossroads Redevelopment Area that was approved in 2003.

Although it is unclear how the road’s design was paid for, Madaffer said its construction will be funded with heightened property tax money resulting from the Crossroads area’s redevelopment, which is known as tax-increment financing. A spokesman from the redevelopment agency was unavailable as of press time Monday.

Including a road in the canyon will allow for more residential density in the area and the park’s construction will revitalize a lot that is currently strewn with shopping carts, beer bottles and snack food wrappers, Madaffer said.

“We could really revitalize a community that has been ignored for so many years,” he said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at evan.mclaughlin@voiceofsandiego.orgwith your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or submit a letter to the editor.

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