For decades, San Luis Obispo County has been working to connect the the city to the sea via the Bob Jones Trail — but the clock is ticking on the project, and planners are now looking at new ways to complete the missing piece of the path.
County staff originally designed a 4.5-mile pathway to link the Octagon Barn in SLO to the existing Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach. Aside from the recreation opportunities, the project is important because it allows folks to commute to work and school safely by bike, according to SLO County Public Works Director John Diodati.
“It is taking bikes off the street — that improves safety. That reduces fatalities,” he said. “It’s able to get them where they need to go safely.”
But the county must meet state guidelines to keep a $18.2 million grant from the state’s Active Transportation Program for the trail expansion project.
The project halted because at least one property owner, Ray Bunnell, refused to sell a sliver of his San Luis Obispo land to accommodate the original trail design.
In order to keep the grant, the county must complete land acquisitions and the state must approve the project design for construction by February 2025, according Diodati.
So far, the county has spent $600,000 of the grant, he said. If the county fails to meet state deadlines and doesn’t build the trail, it must return the funding to the state.
At Tuesday’s San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting, county staff presented two alternative trail designs that avoid the Bunnell property.
One design would break the trail to avoid Bunnell’s property, while the other would move a portion of the trail to the shoulder of Highway 101.
“I commend staff for taking the opportunity to really put their heads together and work with our partners to look for alternatives so we can continue on with this,” Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said.
The board voted 4-0 to direct staff to proceed with the final design phase of the project and secure the needed approvals from the California Transportation Commission.
Supervisor John Peschong recused himself from the item because he accepted a campaign donation from Bunnell’s family.
“The heartfelt testimony we’ve heard in public comment here speaks to the importance of the project,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. “We’ve got to get this done. We cannot lose this grant.”
Property owner refuses to sell land, blocks project
The original design calls for the trail to follow San Luis Obispo Creek on the east side of Highway 101.
It would start at the Octagon Barn parking lot in San Luis Obispo and run adjacent to South Higuera Street until it reaches Clover Ridge Lane. The path would then pass through fields parallel to Highway 101, cross under San Luis Bay Drive, then cross under Highway 101 along the creek before connecting with the existing trail parking lot on Ontario Road, according to Diodati.
“This alignment keeps users off the highway and never having to physically cross it,” Diodati said.
The problem is, a piece of the proposed trail clips Ray Bunnell’s 142-acre property. The county asked Bunnell to sell a 1.36-acre easement on the edge of his land, but after a long negotiation process, he refused.
The 1.36-acre plot is away from residential and ranching facilities on the property, and 1.1 acres are “already encumbered with existing utility easements and the easements within the floodplain, which means it can’t be further developed,” Diodati said.
“We can’t build the current alignment of this trail without right-of-way from Mr. Bunnell,” Diodati said of the original route design.
The county could try to force Bunnell’s hand, but it would require four votes for the board to pass a Resolution of Necessity initiating an eminent domain process that compels him to sell the easement.
That idea is dead in the water, however, because Peschong cannot vote on the resolution due to the campaign donation, and Supervisor Debbie Arnold said she doesn’t support using the eminent domain process to acquire land for this project.
The County General Plan includes a policy that says a “trail easement across private parties may only be obtained from a willing seller or donor, as part of a specific plan or as a condition of a project approval,” county counsel Rita Neal wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Neal explained that the board can legally override the General Plan, but Arnold said she wants to honor the county’s agreement to leave private property alone.
“Property owners along those trails were confident that this county had a policy that said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not going to go through your property,’” Arnold told the Tribune after the meeting. “I think the deal was made, and here we have a perfect example of why it was made.”
Two new trail design options
That’s left the county needing a Plan B, so Diodati presented two new trail design options at the meeting.
The first, called the “bookend approach,” divides the trail to avoid the Bunnell property — with the goal of filling in the gap if the county eventually acquires the easement.
The county would build the trail from the Octagon Barn in SLO to a potential parking lot at Clover Ridge Lane near Bunnell’s property. A farm stand or other amenities could be placed near the parking lot for trail users to enjoy.
The second half of the trail would start near the southern edge of Bunnell’s property and continue on to the parking lot at Ontario Road and then to Avila Beach. The county would build temporary crossings to connect the two pieces of the trail.
The second design, called the “bypass approach,” relocates a three-fourths mile section of the trail that clips the Bunnell property to the shoulder of Highway 101.
A steel beam barrier would protect the trail from the highway, Diodati said.
In that case, the county must coordinate with Caltrans to ensure that the designs are possible, then apply to the California Transportation Commission for approval.
Community rallies support for Bob Jones Trail
At least 10 community members spoke in favor of the project at public comment, urging the board to allow staff to continue the design process so the county doesn’t loose the grant funding. Others in the audience waved signs that said “I love the Bob Jones Trail.”
SLO County resident Jennifer Horstman Chase said the expanded trail is critical for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.
Horstman Chase’s husband, Dr. Damian James Horstman, was riding his bike to work in 2015 when he was struck and killed by a truck at the intersection of South Higuera Street and Ontario Road.
“The roadway is unsafe, not because of how it is being used, but because of how it was designed,” Chase said. “Users, whether on foot, on bike, or on a car, are routed across oncoming freeway-speed traffic and it’s unsafe.”
An expanded Bob Jones Trail would have been a safer route for her husband to commute to work, she said.
“The delay in the Bob Jones Trail contributed to the loss of my partner of 15 years,” Chase said. “It’s inevitable, particularly if incidents continue to mount in this section of road, that an alternative route will move forward, so why not do it now — when the social impact and financial impacts are so compelling?”
Friends of the Bob Jones Trail President Helene Finger also urged the board to finish the trail.
“There are real people, adults and children in this community, whose safety is at stake,” Finger said. “Many members of our community cannot afford a vehicle or pay the high price of gas and must commute along this bicycle corridor. Having a safe route for them to travel from their home to their job or to school is an absolutely critical need.”
Not only would the project protect cyclists and pedestrians, but it also would act as a much-needed fire break in the area, Finger said.
“Please prioritize the fire and transportation needs of this project and support expedited productive construction before more people are injured or killed because we delayed in our protection of them,” she said.