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Monday, Sept. 10, 2007 | Even the map of Northern San Diego County shows a problem. Pull one up, in case you haven’t in a while, and consider San Diego County’s two major north-south freeway corridors, I-5 and I-15.

Follow me here: In the more urban part of the county, there are a couple of relatively efficient east-west routes linking the two corridors — I-8 and SR-52. You’ve also got the new-ish SR-56 linking Poway with Carmel Valley. Way up in Oceanside, the SR-78 links Escondido with the north-north coast.

Now, steer your eyes to that big hole in the middle, between SR-56 and SR-78. Man, it’s BIG — no east-west routes along I-5 for almost 20 miles. What the heck is going on there?

For one thing, there are about 7,000 people living on some of the priciest real estate in the County. And that’s only if you count Rancho Santa Fe proper.

And though it isn’t a freeway, there is an east-west route through that big mid-coast hole. It’s the Del Dios Highway/Via De La Valle Corridor, and it will take you — slowly — from Escondido to Del Mar. There aren’t precise counts of the cars that use this two-lane through-fare, but use your imagination. Consider also that westbound SR-56 and SR-78 often move rather sludge-like on weekday mornings.

Now you’re getting closer to the problem. But there are still two key points to learn:

The first is that Del Dios Highway becomes Paseo Delicias, the main street through the village of Rancho Santa Fe.

The second is that Rancho Santa Fe, to maintain its long-cherished rural character, does not have stoplights. And it never will, if a great many of its residents keep things their way.

♦♦♦

The steel-and-rubber tsunami bears down upon three intersections immediately east of the village of Rancho Santa Fe, where Del Dios Highway meets a couple of residential streets before joining up with Via De La Valle, its outlet to the coast.

Through these three, stop-controlled intersections pass all cars which seek access to the Ranch and Del Mar from Escondido and the northeast: parents dropping kids off at schools; horse people headed to the parks and polo fields of the San Dieguito river valley; contractors and domestic workers reaching their daily toil in the mansions and construction sites of the region.

The three intersections are controlled by nothing more than stop signs, because the Rancho Santa Fe Association — on behalf of its members — has vehemently opposed traffic lights since the beginning of time. Unlike other forbidden normalcies in the Ranch, such as mailboxes and overhead streetlights, stoplights are not formally prohibited by Association rules. (There already is one at Via De La Valle and Calzada Del Bosque, although nobody seems to know how it got there.)

But the dislike of signals is deeply ingrained in the residents of this uncompromising village.

“It’s sort of the first step down a slippery slope of urbanization,” longtime resident and former RSFA Director Donna Ferrier told me. “We’ve tried to avoid that in the Ranch as much as possible, and people seem to like that and appreciate it and are willing to pay big dollars to live here.”

The RSF community also says it’s not their fault that their main drag became a vital east-west corridor. Try blaming Encinitas. That’s the city that incorporated in 1986 to fight SA 680, an east-west highway long planned by the county.

But as developments have sprouted to the east of the Ranch, squeezing more and more cars down Paseo Delicias, the cost of maintaining its character has skyrocketed. A 2004 traffic study predicted that by now, peak-hour queues of cars would run more than a mile long at some of the three stop signs.

That’s more than a twenty-minute wait just to get through one intersection.

There is a solution on the horizon. After some prying from the Association, the county has signaled that it would be OK with installing roundabouts at the three key intersections in lieu of traffic signals. When that will happen, and where the money will come from, have yet to be figured out. The earliest a roundabout solution could possibly be in place — after environmental reviews, tip-jar-passing and construction — is 2012. And it could be five more years.

Meanwhile, commuters have found ways around the gridlock on Delicias (yes, that’s really the street name): other residential streets. They get delayed, get angry, and get creative … then drive really fast. And residents of those streets — whom, you remember, pay big bucks to live in rural Rancho Santa Fe — very much hate commuter cut-through traffic outside their rural homes. As resident Ron Hahn explained:

“For me it’s a crapshoot driving out of my driveway each morning. Because I have about a 30-foot look in each direction on a radius curve, and the cars are rolling through there at 45 mph. Its just blind luck if I don’t get hit.”

Hahn and other residents of some of the popular cut-through streets are petitioning the Association for relief from the cut-through crapshoot. Their proposed remedy: temporary stoplights. Do a traffic study, throw some lights up, and ease the problem while we wait for roundabouts, they say.

But the Association fears that if they put in temporary stoplights, the county will realize that they’re a cheap, effective solution and decide to hell with pricey roundabouts, let’s just leave the lights in.

And then what happens then to the “rural” character of Rancho Santa Fe?

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Hahn said. “Nobody wants signals and they’re scared to death they’re going to work. God help us if we find a solution that actually works.”

If the homeowners association has its way, though — as it usually does — no one will get a chance to find out.

“It’s not prudent or financially responsible to revisit an unacceptable alternative, which would be traffic signals,” RSFA Board President Marie Addario said, explaining why the homeowners association probably won’t move on temporary lights. “This community has a long history of opposing signals. We’re not ready compromise our rural character.”

The RSFA also fears that distracting the county with another request — “could you please do this for us, too?” — might hold up the roundabouts even longer. With $125,000 already spent on planning roundabouts and the environmental review process set to begin next month on them, it’s better to just get the project done as quickly as possible, they say.

In other words, don’t look for the stop-sign sludge-fest to end anytime soon, folks. Though a few residents are still agitating at meetings for temporary stoplights, it looks like North County commuters will continue to get jammed in that time-sucking black hole that is the Del Dios Highway/Via De La Valle corridor.

But at least they’ll have a pretty village to look at while they wait.

Everybody thinks [stoplights] ruin the rural, equestrian aspect of the neighborhood, and I can’t argue with that,” Hahn, the crapshoot player, said. “It does detract from it — but so do lines of cars 200 deep stacked up. That kind of detracts from the rural atmosphere also.”

The Merge vacationed in Mexican dunes, San Francisco bars and the Trinity river, because working in “paradise” just ain’t the same as living there. Send postcards, palm wine and plane tickets to iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor. In between trips, Ian S. Port is assistant editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice.

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