Lori Mitsuka put her toddler in a stroller and walked her kindergartener to Top of the World school at least twice a week last year. She lives in Arch Beach Heights at the other end of a mile-long trail connecting her neighborhood with the Top of the World community. She said there were lots of cuts, bruises, scraped knees and dirty clothes before the kids ever stepped foot on the playground.
“It’s impossible to take a stroller on that trail,” said Mitsuka, referring to the short and steep dirt trail that shoots off from the paved fire road two blocks from the school. “If the kids want to take a bike when they get a little older, there’s just no way.”
Mitsuka said she parks her baby-stroller on the fire road. But when toting little ones, the trail’s too precarious for comfort. “There’s a lot of picking them up and holding their hands,” she said. “It’s not a trail where they’re free to roam.”
The City Council is looking into improving the trail to encourage more walking and fewer cars dropping off and picking up school children. Mitsuka, who’s lived in Arch Beach Heights for five years and shares walking kids to school with other moms, said taking the trail is sometimes faster than the bus due to numerous stops in the hilly neighborhoods.
The steepest part of the trail is a 34-percent grade, sharper than the Third Street hill, with wooden and earthen steps that have been worn down by mountain bikers and reconstructed several times. “The steps have been turned into a dusty trail,” said Carol Buss, who lives nearby. “Part of the trail needs to be safe for bicyclists, too.”
Buss, along with other Top of the World residents, plans to meet with Wade Brown, public works project director, to request opening up a gentler part of the trail now hidden under brush and bramble that rolls around the crest of a hill, bypassing the steep steps.
“The trail got overgrown so it hardly shows anymore,” said Buss, who estimates she’s walked there 2,500 times during the last 38 years, including 24 years with her dogs. “I stopped walking it as much when I got old and the dogs died,” she said of her twice-weekly excursions.
Treasurer for the Top of the World Neighborhood Assn., Buss wants the city to restore the overgrown section not only because it would be a safer route but because it would be farther away from and less disturbing to residents in Sommet du Monde, a gated enclave next to the trail. The city has set aside $350,000 for the trail’s upgrade.
Physician and eye surgeon Jerry Sebag raised concerns about using city money efficiently, safety, trespassing and privacy, increased noise and traffic from cars, bicyclers and skateboarders. Along with others from Sommet du Monde, he said he will oppose the trail unless concerns are resolved.
“People currently fall on a daily basis and we hear them yelling and screaming, bikers in joy and strollers and pedestrians in fear,” he said.
Sebag said he would agree to improvements if the city covered the trail similar to the pedestrian path enclosure in Crystal Cove State Park north of Laguna Beach. “It would prevent intrusion on our privacy visually and in terms of sound,” he said. Sommet du Monde leads into Top of the World Drive, a single-lane road at the south end of Alta Laguna Boulevard.
At a City Council meeting earlier this month, Brown presented an alternative that would double the width of the existing trail to 10 feet on an easement that abuts Sommet du Monde property. It would then avoid the steep steps and go around the crest of the hill, as Buss prefers, with a safer path to the fire road.
Brown said it would be difficult to improve the trail as it is because concrete stairs and pathways as well as handrails would need to be installed for the steeper sections, still making it impassable for baby-strollers. The city is taking six months to look at alternatives and address concerns of Sommet du Monde residents.
“Sommet du Monde people do not use the trail,” attests Buss. “And it’s not their property, they don’t own it. So how ‘bout talking to the people who use the trail?”
Julian Tafreshi, a chiropractor who lives on Sommet du Monde, opposes the new plan because it puts the trail even closer to his home. “It is two to three feet away from our sitting area where our children play,” he said. “We can hear the hikers’ conversations while sitting in our kitchen.” Tafreshi said he would support the plan if a block wall was built to buffer noise and enhance privacy.
If alternatives don’t play out, Mitsuka said she’d like to see a “good neighbor policy” where the gate on the Sommet du Monde would be kept open before and after school, making the trail walkable and strollable.
Photos by Rita Robinson