Horse owners and other outdoor enthusiasts called on the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to step up efforts to protect Riverside County trails long in public use, mostly around Lake Mathews, where private interests are gradually cutting off access.

“The county has allowed development to close our trails,” said rancher Chris Herron, spokesman for Greater Lake Mathews/Gavilan Hills Residents United. “The county has dropped the ball. They’ve decreased our property values. The county needs to step up to the plate, do your jobs and enforce codes and ordinances. You don’t do any of that.”

The “Save Our Trails” rally was held outside the board chamber, after which nearly 50 participants attended the supervisors’ meeting, about a quarter of whom spoke.

“This is a rural area, built for horse trails and the community,” Laura Doughty told the board. “Large businesses and developers are taking away our rural lifestyle.”

Debbie Walsh, director of the Rural Association of Mead Valley and a past First District supervisorial candidate, urged the board to direct Transportation & Land Management Agency staff to “take the gates down” at several locations where landowners have blocked off horse and walking paths.

“We’re pretty upset about this happening,” Walsh said. “We have over 1,000 petition (signatures).”

Herron alleged the trails are being systematically erased from the County Adopted Trails System, which is part of the General Plan. He pointed to a trail along Idaleona Road as one example. The path is adjacent to a public use road and shows up in the county “road book” as a publicly accessible pathway, but has been fenced off by a landowner, Herron said.

TLMA Director Juan Perez acknowledged during the meeting that the fencing was likely erected in the wrong place and that an easement exists permitting “public access” to the path. He said an investigation is underway, suggesting the fence may be displaced to allow riders and trekkers back into the area.

Another trail that raised concerns fronts Lake Mathews Drive. Herron said it was “destroyed by a property owner who illegally removed tons of dirt, planted hundreds of pepper trees, blocking the trail, and installed chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire.”

The county also intends to build a spillway that would further erode the trail, according to Herron, who has kept his 185-acre ranch open to all riders for use, without charge.

He said a trail that cuts across Cajalco Road, near Wood Road, was taken out of service after a gas station project was approved by the county. Opponents blamed Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, in whose First District the area lies, for not taking equestrians and other outdoor enthusiasts’ needs into account.

“Many other trails throughout the county have been, and are in the process of, being destroyed and eliminated,” Herron said.

Jeffries released a statement to City News Service in which he said the protesters are composed mainly of property owners in conflict with a large landowner south of Lake Mathews whose activities they don’t like.

“There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what is an official approved trail, and what is just an informal trail people have used over time, generally on private property,” Jeffries told CNS.

“The county’s General Plan is essentially a long-term wish list, which includes a lot of colored lines on a map that could potentially be developed as a legal trail some day. But the mere presence of an existing path does not legally make it an existing public trail,” he said.

“Those potential trail lines on the map are subject to changes or even property owner opposition. We’ve been in contact with a local equestrian club, and they did not identify any obstructions related to approved horse riding trails, so these new claims are a little surprising.”

The supervisor said his staff is continuing to coordinate with county agencies to “work on improving our public parks and trail networks … so that residents can more safely utilize this asset without having to park on private property or ride across dangerous roads to access the trails there.”

The board as a whole declined to formally respond to the activists.

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