Forty-five years ago, Richard Fleming planted himself in front of workers who were erecting a chain-link fence to protect a strip of picturesque beach in South Laguna’s Totuava Bay.
For his act of defiance, he said, he was hauled off by sheriff’s deputies and later found guilty of trespassing.
On Sunday, the 82-year-old Fleming strode hand in hand with his wife on the sandy shore of the once-forbidden beach for the first time since they became embroiled in a bitter feud with a neighbor.
“I feel just great!” Fleming shouted as he fought to be heard over the waves crashing on craggy offshore rocks in the small cove.
About 43 feet of the rusty fence, which stood 10 feet high and was topped by up to six strands of barbed wire, were cut down Saturday morning, marking the end of a yearlong battle by local residents who had picked up the long-abandoned effort by Fleming.
The residents, many of whom are members of the Sea Cliff Drive Homeowners Assn., complained that the fence violated state law and was an eyesore.
Last August, they won a victory at City Hall when the City Council unanimously voted to order the fence cut down.
But months later, the fence was still locking the public out of the stretch of beach in front of the Laguna Lido Condominiums. Residents then decided to take their case to the California Coastal Commission, said Michael McDaniels, a past president of the Sea Cliff Drive Homeowners group.
On March 5, Coastal Commission enforcement coordinator Nancy Cave sent a letter to Laguna Lido manager Dave Taft, telling him that the 45-year-old fence “is an unpermitted development in the coastal zone and should be removed as soon as possible.”
The letter gave a March 28 deadline.
A similar letter was sent to McDaniels, on whose property lies--or used to lie--a 43-foot stretch of the fence.
“I complied gladly,” McDaniels said Sunday.
So at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, McDaniels called City Manager Kenneth C. Frank and arranged to have a police officer stand at the fence while he and five hired hands cut into it with shears and a blowtorch.
By afternoon, only the portion of fence on the Laguna Lido Condominium complex property remained. If the complex does not tear the fence down by the end of the month, the case will be turned over to the state attorney general’s office for prosecution, according to the Coastal Commission letter.
The opening of the fence marked a victory for McDaniels, a radiologist who began fighting for the fence’s removal shortly after he moved into his beachfront home next to the condominium complex in 1988.
But if it was a small victory for McDaniels, the hole in the fence closed the book on the ancient feud between Fleming and his now-deceased neighbor, Eugene Schwartzwald, who died of a heart attack shortly after the fence was built.
After his death, Schwartzwald’s wife controlled the property, and eventually leased it to developers who built the condominiums in 1960. She added a clause to the 99-year lease agreement to keep the fence intact, said Fleming, who lost a court battle to keep the beach open before the fence was built.
Angry over the court decision, Fleming tried to physically halt the building of the fence, and was arrested for refusing to leave the beach.
Today, Fleming said that he feels vindicated, decades after the feud was sparked and he and his former neighbor went their separate ways.
“I feel that a great injustice that was done long ago has been corrected,” Fleming said.