Bishop Peak conservation plan gets nod from SLO Council

The Ferrini Ranch trail to Bishop Peak.
The Ferrini Ranch trail to Bishop Peak. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Upgraded signs, garbage cans, “mutt-mitt” dispensers and more ranger patrols are among the improvements approved Tuesday for Bishop Peak, a popular hiking destination that draws more than 150,000 visitors a year.

The San Luis Obispo City Council voted 4-0 to approve an update to the Bishop Peak Natural Reserve Conservation Plan, which encompasses the 352-acre property in the northwest part of the city.

Councilman John Ashbaugh recused himself because his property is near one of of the access areas discussed in the report.

"The Bishop Peak Natural Reserve is one of the most iconic, well-loved landmarks in the entire region," said Bob Hill, the city's natural resources manager.

The property has grown so popular, city officials say, that it needs more oversight, improved trail maintenance and better access for emergency responders. The council also agreed to stop advertising the city’s most recognizable peak as a hiking destination.

Most of the trails on the Bishop Peak Natural Reserve are nearly 20 years old, and the pounding from millions of feet has taken a toll on the iconic landmark.

Access is limited to residential trailheads with no off-street parking, and neighbors in the area have complained of night hiking, camping, litter and noise.

Mayor Jan Marx suggested the city increase the fines for night hiking and off-leash dogs, currently set at $489 each, and recommended the city move forward with a policy goal to create an open space committee to advise city staff on open space acquisition and management.

"I would like to see signs making it clear that nighttime hiking is prohibited with drawings of mountain lions and black bears and bobcats and bats," she said.

Hill said only a handful of fines have been issued in the past 18 months for night hiking and off-leash dogs.

Other major issues affecting the preserve include trail degradation due to erosion, poor signage and use of unofficial trails. The city will also encourage people to ride their bikes or take public transit to the trailheads.

"At many locations we're experiencing trail widening, trail erosion and trail braiding," Hill told the council. "We also know that we need to improve our signage at the trailheads and throughout the system."

The official access points for a 2-mile hiking trail to the 1,546-foot peak are on Patricia and Highland drives in a residential neighborhood off Foothill Boulevard.

The trail begins its ascent on the mountain’s tree-shaded north side and then winds around to the rocky, exposed south face, where hikers negotiate a series of switchbacks to reach the summit and its spectacular 360-degree view of the county.

A trailhead on Foothill Boulevard is also a popular access point, but remains an unapproved path that runs through private ranch property.

In addition, the council approved a new Good Neighbor Policy that calls for more communication with residents who live near the trailhead, more parking enforcement on Patricia and Highland drives and clearly marked signs warning of fines for overnight parking.

Gary Felsman, for whom the Felsman Loop trail is named, suggested the city encourage hikers to park on the west side of Patricia Drive to help address neighborhood concerns.

"As much as there's concern about the use, I think there's some excitement there, too," Councilman Dan Rivoire said. "The fact that properties like this are preserved .. is because you've become fond of them through use."

The City Council’s recently approved two-year financial plan includes funds to hire three new rangers, including two temporary employees at about 30 hours a week each, to improve the city’s ability to maintain, improve and patrol open space areas.

Recruitment for the positions is already underway, Hill said.

To help hikers navigate the peak, the city proposes upgrading trail signs, making trail maps more available and installing two informational kiosks.

Erosion will be addressed through continued trail rehabilitation projects, which will be monitored for their effectiveness, according to the staff report.

The city’s first and last conservation plan for Bishop Peak was adopted in 2004.

For the 2015 update, city staff hosted two public workshops in May to gather resident input. The proposed update was adopted by both the city Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission.

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