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Santa Cruz neighborhood rejects state orders to open beach for free

Santa Cruz neighborhood rejects state orders to open beach for free
Opal Cliffs, also known as Privates Beach, is a secluded pocket beach managed by a neighborhood district and accessible with a $100 annual gate key. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Rather than negotiating with coastal officials as planned this week, a Santa Cruz neighborhood group said Wednesday it doesn’t need renewed permission to charge a $100 annual fee to access a county park known by locals as Privates Beach.

The Opal Cliffs Recreation District has argued that it already has the right, established by state and county permits, to sell gate keys and use proceeds to keep the beach clean and safe.

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But the California Coastal Commission stepped in and voided the entire gate operation, citing the state’s landmark Coastal Act, which declares that access to the beach is a fundamental right guaranteed to everyone. The commission demanded that the neighborhood group start the permit process from scratch, but in a bold move district leaders fought back by withdrawing from the process entirely.

The move sets up a legal fight over the future of the beach. If the gate operation remains in effect, it would be the first time a public beach in California is allowed to charge for access itself.

Talks leading up to this week’s permit hearing, scheduled for Thursday in Scotts Valley, hit an impasse over what, exactly, compromise looks like.

“What coastal staff is proposing is entirely unreasonable, it’s irrational. They’re overreaching and trying to vitiate the entire permit history of the park,” said Mark Massara, the lawyer representing the neighborhood district. “We’re confident that we’re acting legally and look forward to future discussions with the commission.”

The commission, in its staff recommendations, had offered what it said was a balance between public beach access and residents’ safety concerns.

Staff recommended free year-round access from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. Gate guards must go, staff said, but they proposed allowing the gate to be closed at night. The 9-foot-tall gate itself should be replaced by a fence no taller than 6 feet.

“We actually left the door open for the gate and fence to remain, subject to it being unlocked during daylight hours, saying, ‘Well, there may be a legit public safety concern,’ ” said Patrick Veesart, who oversees enforcement of the state’s coastal law in Northern California. “Ordinarily, we’re pretty hardcore about wanting access 24/7.”

The district’s permit history is central to the access battle. In 1949, the county gave residents the authority to manage this beach by recognizing them as a special district composed of elected volunteers.

Citing “vandalism, litterbugging and traffic congestion,” the district in 1963 locked the gate and issued keys for $1, according to a newspaper clipping. A 1981 Coastal Commission permit acknowledges the operation, and in 1991, a deed restriction recorded by the commission states the district can set the cost of keys based on what it deems “expenses necessary to maintain the public areas.”

But in a recent review of the documents, commission staff concluded that the permit had expired in 1982 and that the deed restriction had been issued by mistake. Any changes since — the 9-foot gate, the annual fee, the security guards — are unpermitted and a violation of the state’s coastal law, officials said.

Massara said taking this to court might be necessary, but he hopes to reach an agreement with the commission that recognizes that funding needs to come from somewhere to keep the beach safe and clean. The district, he said, lacks the money to file a lawsuit.

“If we had money to burn, we’d rather save it to take care of the park,” he said. “But I just don’t know what else we can do. We have to get some rational, objective figure to look at the history of the park.”

In the meantime, the district has taken steps to appease its critics. It began opening the beach free of charge last year from Memorial Day to Labor Day and will continue through this summer. Residents previously paid less for their annual key than visitors, but the district recently increased the price for homeowners to $100 as well.

The commission, in a statement Wednesday, said it was disappointed that the district withdrew from the permit process, preventing an opportunity to discuss and resolve the matter in a public forum. Officials are now weighing their options, which include pursuing penalties for violating the state’s coastal law.

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“We intend to explore all possible options going forward including seeking enforcement remedies, if necessary,” the statement said. “This is the only public beach in California we know of that requires such a fee, which mostly benefits those who live in the immediate area and disproportionately impacts those least able to afford it.”

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