Cheance Adair leads the Team Survivor Sea Dragons as they put their boat in the water on Fiesta Island. July 1, 2014. Credit: Guillermo Sevilla/KPBS.

Some athletic clubs find Fiesta Island an ideal spot for races because they can get permits to shut down the road that encircles the island.

But the city of San Diego has cut down the number of permits it issues in response to what it says are hundreds of complaints about the road being closed. The athletic clubs aren’t happy.

“Ideally the roads need to be closed just for safety, it’s better to not have that interaction between cars and bikes,” said Stephen Banister, the Triathlon Club of San Diego’s president. “That’s something that’s really unique about Fiesta Island…it’s one of the few places you can go and really get away from cars.”

What’s more: KPBS hasn’t been able to find anyone who actually complained about the road closures in the first place.

Stacy McKenzie, district manager of Mission Bay Park, said the city doesn’t keep records of complaints about the island’s road closures. She provided a list of seven groups she said had complained, but the leaders of the six groups KPBS could reach said they had never complained to the city.

Groups the City Says Complained
The San Diego Dragonboat Team
Sea Camp San Diego
San Diego Boyscouts/Aquatic Center
Junior Lifeguards Canoe Club
Fiesta Island Dog Owners
Model Rocket Launchers
Hano Hano Ourtigger Club

When presented with this information, Bill Harris, spokesman for the Parks and Recreation Department, said another person in each group might have complained, “and we would have taken that information down and kept a record of that.”

But the leader of each group said no one else from the organization called the city either. Only the Hano Hano Ourtigger Club could not be reached for comment.

Harris later explained by email how his department “kept a record” of the people calling to complain despite not keeping documentation of the complaints. “Not a permanent record……,” he wrote. “Mostly verbal, not formal but plentiful enough to catch staff and Committee attention, spark dialogue and result in Committee action,” he added.

Athletic groups like the Triathlon Club are urging the city to go back to the old permitting schedule. But that’s not on the city’s agenda.

Until this summer, groups could pay to take out discretionary permits for Fiesta Island events every weekend, which would close the island’s road usually from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Banister, the Triathlon Club’s president, took out these permits every year so his group could host training races on the island. The events are meant to help club members, many of whom are new to triathlons, get comfortable swimming and biking in a big group.

Cyclists ride in a group around Fiesta Island in the afternoon on July 1, 2014. Credit: Guillermo Sevilla.
Cyclists ride in a group around Fiesta Island in the afternoon on July 1, 2014. Credit: Guillermo Sevilla.

But when Banister went last fall to secure permits for this summer’s series of races he found no dates available. That’s because the number of weekends for which he could take out a permit had been cut in half. After negotiating with the city, he was able to secure three permits. In previous years, the club was able to have 12.

“I think it’ll mean a lot of people will go out on their own, and unfortunately a lot of the safety aspect of that is lost because we can’t improve on people’s skills or give them the opportunity to have a race-like environment,” he said.

The decision to make the change came from the Mission Bay Park Committee, which advises the Parks and Recreation Department. City staff told the committee early last year that they “receive numerous complaints from the community when the island is closed.”

So last July, Mission Bay Park Committee member Gary Rotto recommended the change. He told KPBS he did it because McKenzie, the park’s district manager, told the committee there was tension and complaints around the number of events on Fiesta Island. Rotto said he thought cutting the number of closures in half struck the right balance.

Harris said Parks and Recreation didn’t recommend making the change but “presented it as a problem, as an issue.”

“And the committee was already aware of it,” he said. “They’d been getting complaints themselves.”

Rotto said he didn’t receive any complaints, and he didn’t recall anyone coming to the committee meetings to complain about the number of events.

At that July meeting, the committee said the change should be posted on the city’s website. It’s not on the city’s website now, and it doesn’t turn up in the site’s archives.

Harris said he doesn’t remember whether the change was posted online. He said Parks and Recreation let groups who use the island know about the change after the vote.

“We really do believe we were able to talk to just about everybody who had a stake out there,” he said.

None of the group leaders interviewed by KPBS knew the committee was discussing a change in the permitting rules before that July meeting last year, and most didn’t know a change had been made until KPBS told them.

“It wasn’t actually until I got contacted (by KPBS) that I thought, that’s right, there haven’t been that many (events),” said Cheance Adair, coach for the San Diego Dragonboat Team and Team Survivor Sea Dragons.

The road that encircles Fiesta Island. July 1, 2014. Credit: Guillermo Sevilla/KPBS.
The road that encircles Fiesta Island. July 1, 2014. Credit: Guillermo Sevilla/KPBS.

Adair said neither she nor any of her team members ever complained to the city about the number of Fiesta Island events, even though McKenzie listed the San Diego Dragonboat Team as one of the organizations that complained. In fact, the only time Adair spoke with someone from the city about the issue was when McKenzie called her last month to say KPBS wanted to interview Fiesta Island groups affected by the change.

Adair said the reduced number of events has made things easier for her team.

While anyone can walk onto the island when the road is closed, their boats are stored a mile away from the entrance to the island. The team used to have to change its practice schedule to start before or after the roads were closed to avoid having to walk to their boats.

A few group leaders said that while they didn’t complain about the number of events, they did mention to city employees that sometimes events would creep past the scheduled road closure times.

Harris said the city has received some complaints since the change, mostly from “a biking organization,” but far fewer than before.

“Everything that I’ve seen and everything we’ve talked about as staff shows that it’s working pretty well, and there really is a lot more use of the park by a lot more people in those hours,” he said.

While groups like the Triathlon Club pay fees for road closures, McKenzie said the cutback won’t affect city revenues because other types of permits for events on Fiesta Island that don’t require road closures will continue unabated and may actually increase.

Banister, the Tri Club’s president, said the sharp cutback in his events is especially painful because Fiesta Island is widely recognized as the birthplace of triathlons, and this year is the sport’s 40th birthday.

“Fiesta Island itself is very unique to the entire sport and so shutting it off is kind of a sad thing to see,” he said.

Claire Trageser is an investigative reporter at KPBS. To contact her with questions, tips or corrections, email

35 replies on “San Diego Cuts Fiesta Island Road Closures In Half, But It’s Not Clear Why”

  1. I officially complain about the closures. Though no one group is a public burden to closures, collectively the amount of time the public access is shut down due to an event is way too much. The area surrounding Mission Bay is constantly used by so called non-profit organizations to earn profit. Just dig into events such as the Rock and Roll marathon and you will see that they are getting rich off of people trying to accomplish a personal goal. Groups such as this hide behind donations to real charitable organizations, and when you look at the amount of money they donate compared to what they generate it is clearly a deception for making money. They close down public access, receive large amounts of money from sponsors and entry fee’s, receive money from the City of San Diego Hotel tax and make out like bandits. I encourage you to look into this as well as how many closures there are due to these events. Dont be selfish, share the area with the public.

  2. Fiesta Island is not their private isle. It is annoying driving over there only to see it closed down. Particularly on the weekend.

    Typical of the media to favor these groups and investigate. The notion that people use this Isle everyday goes right over their heads…..Do we need to pick up a sign and protest? Start a Facebook rant? Just to use public land???

  3. As a long time member of the Tri Club, and a very frequent user of Fiesta Island, it is a big disappointment that we can’t hold the monthly races as in years past. The road is only closed for 3 hours, early in the morning (typically 6-9am), and it allows for a safe environment for upwards of 200 athletes. As mentioned in the article, the island can still be accessed by bikers, walkers, and dogs during this time, just not cars. I know as a resident of Pacific Beach, the close proximity of the island has been an excellent training ground for bikers and runners but is extremely dangerous when drivers speed around the island. Posted speed limits are often ignored and distracted drivers have pushed me off the road on several occasions. I think a short 3 hour period (the club is there before sunrise to set up) when few people are taking advantage of the location is not a lot to ask.

  4. Chris, I agree with you its not a lot to ask for one group, however, collectively the amount of time the public access is shut down due to many different groups having just one short shut down of the island adds up to be too much. This is what the city is addressing.

  5. Totally agree with Chris – during ANY street closure on the island, the general public can still access the island for whatever they want to do; just not by car during the closure time frame.

  6. The island is actually only allowed to be closed for 2hrs to vehicles 7-9am. If you’re on before it you’re fine, you just can’t leave until 9am. On top of that, almost all the resources that can be found on Fiesta Island can be found somewhere else. Dog Park? Bill Cleator Park or Dog Beach (both in OB). Fishing? shelter island pier, OB or Crystal Pier. Over the Line practice? Crown Point. BBQ pits? any public beach. The only thing that is not available anywhere else is an isolated road that can be closed with minimal impact to community while allowing for a safe course for people biking.

    Luke, if you are this upset about nonprofits, then I truly hope you never watch an NFL game

  7. Im not upset just pointing out that one time shut downs of fiesta island by many different groups equals frequent denying of the public of their right to use the land as intended. I do not recall the NFL ever shutting down fiesta island.

  8. Guess I got lost when the first two sentences of your comment and the last two were related to island closures while the majority was around the supposed corrupt nature of non profits.

    Curious though: What can you do on the island during those times that you can’t do somewhere else?

  9. Let’s face it, American’s are getting fat and part of the reason is exactly what you mentioned, Rock-n-roll races that charge hundreds of dollars to participate. Doing a race was once a twice-a-month endeavour. Today it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    The Tri-Club is different. Join for a very nominal fee and the races are free. That’s exactly how all kinds of races where back in the 1970-80s, 10Ks….. and that’s why kids today are less healthy than their parents.

    Suddenly I am very interested in the politicians who vote against the Tri-club using Fiesta. Very.

  10. TriClub San Diego is one of the best triathlon groups in the country. They are a non-profit and also have a 501c3 non-profit in TCSD which does significant charity work for the community. My understanding is that the leadership is 100% volunteer driven with no compensation going to their board. These are folks that teach kids and adults how to swim, bike & run. In an active city like San Diego TCSD is a great resource.

  11. Anna please check your privilege. Not everyone can afford $5000 bikes. Why do these groups get to control all of the access to fiesta island?

  12. Agreed, not everyone can afford a $5k bike, me included! That’s why I race on a 1970s road bike.

    As others have pointed out, they do NOT control Fiesta Island. Motor vehicles cannot be driven on the the island for two hours per week. Everything else is permitted.

    To ask your question in another way, why do motor vehicle owners get to control Fiesta Island 168 hours in the week?

  13. The issue that the city appropriately addressed was that one time shut downs of fiesta island by many different groups equals frequent denying the public of their right to use the land as intended. I am sure a good argument can be made on behalf of every group who would like the island shut down for their “only once a year” event. If the city allowed this the result would be exactly what Brian infers, the public required to go elsewhere to do what they wanted to do on fiesta island. Because too many groups want to shut the island down for their “once a year” event, the public is required to go elsewhere many times a year. The City and I only require you to share the land with us and limit the “only once a year” shut downs.

  14. 168 hours a week we share the island with motor vehicles, bikes and horses. The City is suggesting we all share the island and not set aside too many time blocks to restrict other groups based on the way they would like play.

  15. Luke, I may have considered you a worthy opponent, but the subjective inference that a bike cost 5 grand, implying the island is closed to a privileged class, lost all your cred. I’m a blue collar guy, and kicked ass on a 800 bike for years. When I got to this country in ’86 (from Australia, feel free to tell me to go home, but the ladies seem to want me to stay), I thought there would be a shrine to triathlon at Fiesta Island. Instead I got pot holes and pot bellies drag racing. We can’t have it all, I’ve been burnt bringing the canines down, and having my anger raised to a ten, but I went over to Dusty Rhodes. there will be no winners on this forum.

  16. Oz Rules, those were not my comments. The person who made those comments is calling themselves “PleaseCheck”.

    Dont go home, stay and share Fiesta Island with everyone!!

  17. One thing that’s under emphasized here is that these very minimal closures actually INCREASE usage to Fiesta Island, they don’t decrease it. I’ve done many of the Tri Club’s races and you get 150-200 people who wouldn’t otherwise be there sharing a terrific experience – and one of the most positive things San Diego is known for.

    During the races there are plenty of other people on the Island fishing, jet skiing, walking their dogs, and when the race is over and the police let cars back on the island (sometimes before 9) there are maybe 10 cars waiting to get on. Remember, this is still early in the morning.

    I’m not surprised that none of the other groups (mentioned in the article) who regularly use the Island haven’t complained. There is no conflict here; nobody is being put out by the tri club having early morning events on Fiesta Island a few times a year. Given the number of people who turn up, can you think of a better use of the Island for those couple of hours?

  18. i might add that many people i know are inconvenience by the closures that once were 3-4 times a week. The city was just looking for out for everyone. Claire are you a member of the tri club? This article screams bias and doesn’t portray the who truth…..

  19. The island is huge -offsite parking is far and walking into island 3.5 miles to were you want to go just isn’t feasible to 75 % of us! Come on-be realistic – alot of us have to drive ONTO island to make our destination safely.

  20. Well Claire, just by virtue of your article you found 5 people who are in agreement with the City. Your article screams biast.

  21. Once again, the City is only reducing the number of permits. The Tri Club still gets 3 permits instead of 12. No one group or event is a burden to the public due to closures, but collectively many closures equals many denials of the public for access. The goal is public access, not introducing new people to the island. 3 permits are enough and 12 is way too much, the Tri Club wants to hog all the permits to themselves.

  22. I did Greg – thanks. All groups and general public weren’t contacted. Also their members weren’t contacted.

  23. AGREE!!!! Claire please do your homework prior to putting a slanted and bias article out there

  24. Gia, the article claims to have contacted every single contact given to them by the city, and have reached 6 of the 7. One, Cheance, is quoted directly.

    The fault is with the city in this regard. Their records are poorly kept, or not at all. They can’t tell anyone the total number of complaints. They can’t tell how many complaints per group (e.g. Boy Scouts vs. general public). They kept no names. No contact info.

    It appears it’s a small group of administrators haphazardly making it up as they go. Possibly with the best of intentions. But good government starts with clear processes and transparency. And bad government is a small group of personalities making arbitrary, opaque decisions.

    I can’t find much fault with the author in this regard. She apparently followed every single contact given her, and gave about half the “air time” to the one purported complainer she was able to contact.

  25. Luke, did you call the city? If so, I’d be happy to talk to you about it. I went in to this story expecting to talk to groups or individuals who had complained, but the city wasn’t able to provide me with the names of anyone who’d actually complained. Feel free to email me and we can set up a time to talk:

  26. Claire,

    I apologize and I entertain the idea that you didn’t set out to produce a bias article. It is my opinion that your personal interest did result in bias writing. I am responding not with the intent to attack you, but in the spirit of leveling the playing field because you have a public venue and I feel all readers of your article are entitled to the following facts.

    * You state in your BIO on your website “I am a social media addict and train for marathons, half marathons and (as of recently) triathlons in my free time.”

    * The City did not stop issuing permits, they merely reduced the total number issued.

    * The Tri-Club still was issued 3 permits to shut down the island instead of 12

    * Your research for your article didn’t produce anyone against the island closure on behalf of a group, however 43% of those who commented to your article are against closures.

    I’ll admit I am bias as well. Growing up near Mission Bay I have observed over the years and increasing number of groups shutting down parts of the park on behalf of a groups interest. As I have stated in previous comments, no single group or shut down is a burden, however the total number of shut downs is what 43% of us commenting have a problem with. We agree with the city, the Tri-Club can shut the island down 3 times a year, but 12 is too much. What I always felt and the comments to your article suggest is that those of us who use the park as individuals dont represent ourselves very well resulting in many individuals being subject to closures due to those who play in groups.

    After visiting your website I found that you and I have allot in common, I just train individually. I am happy to share the park with you and everyone else at all times and dont feel that I have the right to exclude people based on their preferred way to use public land.

  27. General public is the biggest user and there is not a contact for them??? Also user groups have many members, FIDO having 14, 000 a member most certainly could have called without a lead person knowing……

  28. I have been a Bicycle race Director (Fiesta Island Time Trials & San Diego Time Trials) since 2006. Last fall an incident with a tow truck during a triathlon gave the San Diego Police department reason to raise their normal barricade duty rates by 10x. This cost increase was too much for our small grass-roots race and we had to shut it down.

    We used this race to raise a small amount of money for our bicycle club and to promote safe bicycle racing in San Diego. I was such a pleasure running this race especially seeing the youth races (ages 9 and under). Seeing those young kids race with their proud parents was always a thrill but sadly this joy is now lost.

    As a dog owner I also use Fiesta extensively and have never felt put out by the island road closure. I always tried to work with the Youth Aquatic Center and the FIDO groups to be sure they were well aware of our races and the hours of our closures (typically 7am until 9am on Sundays – 2 hours).

    Finally I want to say I am glad to see iNewsource has taken up this issue and I would be happy to answer any further questions about bike racing on Fiesta or the City permit process or how disappointed we are that we are no out of business.

  29. Thanks Luke. I am not a member of the Triathlon Club–if I had been, I would have given the story to another reporter because I wouldn’t report on a group I’m involved with. The story is not saying whether shutting down the road on the island is good or bad–the point of the story is that the city said the change was made because hundreds of people were calling to complain, including the seven groups they listed, but I wasn’t able to find anyone who had actually called/written to/talked to the city to complain. Thanks again for reading and engaging with me about the story.

  30. Really? 75% of San Diegans cannot park their car and walk? Sawel, maybe it would be good for you to join in one of these events at the Tri Club so you can have more endurance.

  31. One perspective here is simply limiting car usage in a recreation area. In some cities closing down a street from cars for a short period of time is a celebration!
    We drive our cars constantly in Southern California. Maybe if closing Fiesta off from cars for a couple hours is a big inconvenience, it’s time to embrace another form of transportation for the moment. To those who complained: save some gas and join the TRI CLUB 🙂
    There are various parking lots less than a mile from the island.

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