San Diego Cuts Fiesta Island Road Closures In Half, But It’s Not Clear Why
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.

San Diego Cuts Fiesta Island Road Closures In Half, But It’s Not Clear Why

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.

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About Claire Trageser / KPBS:

Claire Trageser / KPBS
Claire Trageser is a multimedia enterprise reporter at KPBS. To contact her with questions, tips or corrections, email ctrageser@kpbs.org.