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San Clemente removes controversial beach fencing amid pressure from county sheriff

Families practice social distancing while playing in the water and sand near the San Clemente Pier on May 18.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Access will be a little easier for beachgoers visiting San Clemente this week after city leaders voted to reopen parking lots and remove fencing that prompted community outcry and a stern rebuke from the county’s top law enforcement official.

The City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to reopen parking lots at 50% capacity and immediately remove the controversial fencing that triggered a protest last week and resulted in a letter from Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes threatening to terminate the agency’s contract with the city.

Last week, about 200 protesters converged near the pier to demand that city officials remove the fence, which some residents and officials contend had become a symbol of the restrictions placed on local communities by Sacramento amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Eight people, including 55-year-old Alan Hostetter, a former La Habra police chief and sheriff’s deputy who organized the protest, were arrested on suspicion of unlawful activity.

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In a letter to interim City Manager Bob Dunek last week, Barnes noted that the situation could have been avoided by removing the fence ahead of the demonstration.

“Unfortunately, after years of continued conflict among the City Council members, I can no longer say that our interests in serving San Clemente’s residents are mutually aligned,” he wrote. “Additionally, the manner in which the city is governing itself and the decisions being made now reflect negatively on the Sheriff’s Department.”

Council members were initially scheduled to discuss the parking restrictions during a meeting in June. But in response to Barnes’ letter, they opted to move up the conversation, calling it a “matter of public safety.”

Under the new rules, certain sections of parking lots will be reopened to achieve 50% capacity, but there will not be barriers blocking every other parking spot. Staff will be able to fully reopen the lots once the county and state also completely reopen their parking areas.

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Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson argued that parking lots should be completely reopened in line with other nearby beach cities. Newport Beach and Laguna Beach have removed all restrictions on beach parking, while Huntington Beach’s lots are operating at between 50% and 75% capacity, according to city staff.

“We’re supposed to be reopening our community and reopening our economy here,” she said, adding that San Clemente shouldn’t be waiting to see what other communities do before taking action.

After some verbal sparring with Ferguson, Councilman Chris Hamm pushed for the city to take a more careful approach, reopening a portion of the lots immediately and giving city staff discretion to open them more fully in the coming days.

“While we are following best practices of the state and the county, I wouldn’t say that we’re waiting to see what others do,” he said. “We’re trying to provide for the safety of our residents, our staff and visitors to our beach. That should be our No. 1 priority.”

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Barnes wrote in the letter that he is evaluating the agency’s option to terminate its contract with the city. It is not clear when he plans to make a decision about whether to continue policing in San Clemente.

“My hope is the City Council can move beyond their existing dysfunction and prioritize the safety of my deputies, as well as the public they serve, in a manner that does not put them in an untenable position and at unnecessary risk,” he wrote.

The loosened restrictions come as coronavirus-linked deaths continue to rise across Orange County.

Health officials on Thursday reported six additional fatalities, raising the region’s death toll to 142. Fifty-nine of those people were residents in skilled nursing facilities, according to county data.

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Officials also reported 100 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the county’s total number of infections to 5,744. That figure includes an estimated 2,209 people who have since recovered.


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