Union Pacific’s New Antenna at the Bluffs

Posted November 9th, 2010 by John Callender

Last night the Carpinteria City Council discussed two new ordinances: One to regulate the flying of radio-controlled airplanes at the bluffs, and another to ban dogs, either on- or off-leash, at the salt marsh. I wasn’t able to attend, though I was interested in the discussion, since the bluffs and the marsh are two of my favorite places to walk in Carp. I don’t get cable, so I couldn’t watch the meeting on TV. I’ll have to talk to somebody who was there, or wait until Thursday when the Coastal View comes out, to find out what happened.

The issue of the model airplanes was raised by Peggy Oki, who spoke to the Council recently about her concern that the planes might be bothering the white-tailed kites (Elanus leucurus) that forage and roost at the bluffs. I’m inclined to be skeptical about that; it seems to me that the kites and the planes have been getting along okay, but I don’t have particularly good data to back that up.

With both proposed ordinances I find myself thinking about this: Natural areas need to have a constituency. They need for there to be people who use those areas and appreciate them and will go to bat for them when they’re threatened. Not everyone loves nature the way I do, but if those people get to walk their dogs or fly their model airplanes in a beautiful natural setting they’ll appreciate those places more. It might be worth putting up with a few modest impacts (like those that would result from allowing dogs at the marsh, or model airplanes at the bluffs) to help build the constituencies for those areas.

The bluffs, even more than the marsh, represent an interesting coming together of different groups of users. There are nature-lovers like me, people who watch the harbor seals from the overlook, people who walk dogs, ride bikes, play soccer and softball at Viola Fields, paint landscapes…

And then there are the trains.

Union Pacific’s railroad line runs right through the bluffs. In order to get to the seal overlook most people make what is an arguably illegal uncontrolled crossing of the tracks at the western end of the Artists Passage. You can see the trains approaching from the west, but the curve hides them from the east, and sometimes they’re moving at a pretty good clip. I’ve seen some close calls at that crossing that really scared me.

Railroad safety is important. Besides uncontrolled crossings, there’s the risk of operator error leading to train-on-train collisions. After a 2008 accident between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink passenger train killed 15 people and injured dozens more, the federal government acted to require U.S. railroads to implement something called Positive Train Control (PTC), a sort of air-traffic-control system for trains. As part of implementing PTC, Union Pacific recently added some new antenna towers along their tracks, and a few weeks ago I came across this newly installed pole at the buffs:

I took a picture and sent it to Jackie Campbell, the director of the city’s Community Development department, and at the following week’s Planning Commission meeting Jackie reported that someone named Jason in Union Pacific’s code enforcement operation told her that the antenna pole was part of the railroad’s new PTC system. Union Pacific hadn’t bothered to tell anyone in Carpinteria that they were putting it in; I’m sure their attitude was: hey, if we had to stop and discuss our plans with every little municipality our lines go through we’d never get anything done.

Yes, but.

The Carpinteria bluffs are special. They offer visitors amazing views of the sea, the meadows, the trees, and the mountains, while a trick of the landscape hides most signs of nearby development. Back in the 1990s a grass-roots effort that included a group of Plein-Air landscape painters called the Oak Group raised nearly $4 million in a short span of time to buy the bluffs, then handed the parcel over to the city with a conservation easement requiring that the site’s unique views be protected. The city’s planning documents explicitly recognize the visual aesthetics at the bluffs as being of the highest order, and call for preserving those views as a key goal of the city. Venoco’s recent proposal to drill for oil next to the bluffs was rejected 70-30 by voters, in part because of the visual impacts of the proposed drilling rig. While visual aesthetics are normally a somewhat intangible concept, at the Carpinteria bluffs that concept has been made about as tangible as I can imagine.

I wish Union Pacific had talked to Carpinterians before they put in their new PTC pole. If they could have located it just a short distance to the east it would have been largely hidden, instead of intruding so prominently into our views of the ocean. Maybe they’d be willing to move it.

In the meantime I’m doing my best to ignore it. When I lived in L.A. I was often confronted by the ugliness of my surroundings, but there were times when the sky, especially, would make me catch my breath and stand marveling while everything else — cars, telephone poles, urban grime — disappeared.

That happens to me at the bluffs, too, and even with a Union Pacific antenna pole (or a pier) in the way, I’m sure it will keep happening.

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