“Get out of here or I’ll pull you off your horse and have you arrested for trespassing!” This was the what representatives of the Southern California Rail Authority told my husband, Bart Eskander, on Christmas Eve, 1998, as he tried to ride through one of Chatsworth’s main trail arteries that crosses the railroad tracks and connects Andora Avenue to Rinaldi Street.
Despite the fact that the trail easement existed not only on Council District 12’s equestrian trail map, but also on the current City Planning maps at the time, the easement was closed without warning on Dec. 24, 1998.
We later learned that officials from a nearby school asked rail officials to put up a fence to keep children from straying onto the tracks. David Solow, the rail authority’s interim director, said that the workers made the decision to close the easement because of their perceived potential danger of the crossing.
Bart turned around and came home, furious that a long established trail easement that pre-dated the railroad could be cut-off without warning, and without a chance for the community to weigh in on such a critical decision. We began calling on our neighbors, fellow equestrians and Equestrian Trails Inc.’s local Corral 54 to help.
We held a meeting on Dec. 26. Members of the press, representatives from Council District 12’s office, Supervisor Antonovich’s office, local residents, concerned horsepeople, and ETI Corral 54 members crowded into the boarding stable at Trails End Ranch and voiced their concerns. The biggest concern was that a documented public easement, that dated back to the days of the San Fernando Mission, could be taken away at the discretion of a handful of workers in the field without so much as a nod from our elected officials and without recourse from the community.
The brouhaha that ensued was one of Chatsworth’s first organized efforts to maintain our trail system and our horsekeeping rights. Up until that point in time, most of us were content to let others, who were more familiar with downtown politics, fight the big battles on our behalf.
Solow was quoted at the time in the Los Angeles Times, “I’m obviously sensitive to the fact that there’s been historically an unofficial crossing here, but I also have to be concerned about safety.” (Dec. 31, 1998, Valley News, Track Vs. Trail, Patrick McGreevy)
Hal Bernson, then councilman for District 12, maintained a seat on the regional transit authority board. In response to the hundreds of letters received at his office, Bernson advocated for the equestrian community and won a temporary concession from the regional transit authority and the easement was reopened. The community was told at the time that as long as safety did not become an issue, i.e., no one got creamed by a train, the easement would remain open.
With all the stories lately of accidents involving trains, including a woman in Chatsworth being struck at the depot while crossing the tracks, and a horse and rider in Sunland, many of us who remember this battle have become concerned over the future of our crossing. Will someone at the rail authority get nervous over these events and remove our trail access?
We now know that the security of our trail access is fragile and can be subject to the whims of the most lowly workman in the field. How can we secure the future of this vital connection?
The Council office has expressed a desire to work with the community and either build a bridge or a tunnel to fix the problem. The bridge idea has proved to be impractical, and the tunnel faces objection by neighboring residents due to the high volume of traffic by transients in the area who might seek refuge there as they have in other neighborhoods where tunnels have been built. There is also concern of flooding in the tunnel as the spot in question is adjacent to a sulfur spring.
There is another solution.
The trail maps clearly indicate a bridle trail on the west side of the tracks that goes north-northwest and winds through Stoney Point Park. If this trail were taken all the way west to Topanga Canyon Boulevard, it could cross over the train tunnel and end in the area north of Stoney Point known as Coyote Pass. Coyote Pass ends up at the top of Canoga Avenue at the 118 Freeway overpass.
This plan requires minimal grading and some construction of bridle trail fences to ensure equestrian safety through the park and over the tunnel. But, it can be done and with far less expense to the taxpayers than a bridge, tunnel or official crossing.
I’m not suggesting that we give up on our easement over the tracks. To the contrary, I think the easement was there first and the rail authority should not only acknowledge that fact, but build an appropriate crossing for equestrian and pedestrian use. What I am suggesting is that while that battle is being fought, let’s pick a battle we know we can win and build a route that will take this safety issue off the table, end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset of the rail authority, and protect our trail access with a plan that is not only reasonable, but affordable. Since we can’t go over the tracks or under the tracks, let’s just sidepass them entirely.
A quick letter to Councilman Smith’s office and Supervisor Antonovich’s office to push this plan forward is all it takes to get this project off the ground. Let’s get together and make a change for the better for our trail system before we find ourselves reacting to a decision that has been made for us instead of by us.