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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : When Turf No Longer Meets Surf : Del Mar is feeling the pain of change. First, Amtrak sidelined the town's historic station. Now, a long-ignored law banning access to the beach via railroad property is being enforced.

March 12, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEL MAR — The price of progress is being paid by this beach community with its spreading shade trees, fashionable shops and reputation for gracious living. And the locals of Del Mar do not like it.

The unlikely agent of unwelcome change is the Coaster, the commuter train between Oceanside and San Diego that made its long-awaited debut two weeks ago, and left Del Mar without train service.

"Del Mar was just fine before this thing, this Coast or Coaster or whatever the hell they call it," said Del Mar beach enthusiast Jim Manna. "Why can't Del Mar be left alone?"

"There is a lot of anger these days in Del Mar," said former Del Mar Mayor Ronnie Delaney.

Even Del Mar Councilman Ed Colbert, who is board chairman of the regional transit agency that runs the Coaster, concedes sadly, "The Coaster is being greeted with mixed emotions in Del Mar."

The sleek train all outfitted in blue, white and teal is being hailed elsewhere as a much-needed and less stressful alternative to the commute crawl along Interstate 5. But in Del Mar, the train is being cursed for ruining some of the tiny town's most cherished traditions.

First, because of the Coaster, Amtrak discontinued service to Del Mar's historic 90-year-old railroad depot, the same station where the Hollywood set would disembark for the Del Mar racetrack and the good-times Del Mar Inn when the city was in its heyday as a resort in the '30s, '40s and early '50s.

As a result, no trains stop in Del Mar anymore, not the new Coaster and not the venerable San Diegan, the Amtrak train that has long offered service between San Diego and Los Angeles. Both the Coaster and the San Diegan stop instead in Solana Beach, which is a world away from Del Mar even if the distance as measured on California 101 is a mere two miles.

The Del Mar station where Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien, who helped found the racetrack, would greet the likes of Bette Davis, Betty Grable, W.C. Fields, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, George Jessel, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and others has been all but closed.

A lone Amtrak employee still sells tickets for the San Diegan, but when the Solana Beach station is completed, she, too, will be gone.

The Del Mar City Council, in a game of chicken with Amtrak, had refused to allow expansion to accommodate Coaster passengers who would have come from several communities to catch the train in Del Mar. The local hope had been that Del Mar could rebuff the Coaster project but still retain the Amtrak station.

That hope was dashed when Solana Beach, less fussy about such things as 650-space parking lots, made an offer that Amtrak and Coaster officials could not refuse. Despite its ocean view, landmark status and charming red-brick exterior, the Del Mar station was expendable.

"Typical Del Mar isolationism," grumbled Del Mar resident Gary Jacobs, who is forced to catch an Amtrak train or the Coaster in Solana Beach.

With the loss of the railroad station, nearby business owners are complaining about a drop in business.

Commuters no longer stop for a latte at Kirby's Cafe or a Del Mar omelet (Cheddar cheese, bacon and avocado, with a home-baked biscuit on the side) at Carlos & Annie's. One estimate is that merchants will lose upward of $7 million, and the city, the smallest (population 4,800) in San Diego County, will see a drop in sales tax revenue from businesses within walking distance of the station.

"Everybody, without exception, is very upset about it (the loss of the station)," said Kirby's owner and civic activist Paul Frankel. "People are completely disgusted about how Del Mar could be so foolish to let it happen, so narrow-minded."

To add further civic insult, Coaster officials have hired a five-person squad from the Sheriff's Department to enforce an all-but-forgotten law from the 19th Century making it illegal to cross the railroad tracks or venture onto railroad property except at a designated crossing.

The fine will be a minimum of $140, a hefty charge for even the most affluent recreationalist. This threatens to put a sizable crimp in the lifestyle of Del Mar's many surfers, walkers and joggers who love to cross and straddle the tracks that run along the bluffs atop one of Southern California's widest, whitest and cleanest beaches.

"To me, this whole thing is a crock," said Denise Weatherwax, a free-lance technical editor who likes to walk her dog, Cookie, along a well-trod path beside the tracks. "You can't let people use this path for 30, 40 years and then decide to make it illegal.

"People in Del Mar are really upset."

*

The no-trespassing edict is being enforced on the entire 43-mile Coaster route. But the pain is sharpest in Del Mar, where the southern half of the city lacks a legal access to the beach along a mile-and-a-half stretch.

"No question about it, Del Mar is getting hit the hardest by this," said Chris Spengler, a leader in the Surfrider Foundation.

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