Top of the World trail gets OK for upgrades

Proponents of a refurbished path for pedestrians and cyclists in Laguna Beach’s Top of the World area scored a victory Tuesday night with a unanimous City Council vote authorizing the collection of bids for the reconstruction.

This appears to be the most definitive move by the city after years of negotiating with two private property owners whose land intersects with the path, as does city and county property. The work could be completed by fall.

The council’s approval means that the city will maintain portions of three private roads and sign agreements with the two property owners for access to the path, which runs along a ridge that connects the Top of the World and Arch Beach Heights neighborhoods and offers views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance.


The owners of the two private parcels, both vacant, asked that relevant portions of Top of the World Drive be made public, leaving any associated maintenance to the city. The other two roads, Alta Laguna Boulevard and Treetop Lane, factor in because of their location in regard to the path.

Some speakers at the meeting questioned the legality of the city accepting responsibility for portions of the roads without neighborhood consent as concerns about the possibility of increased traffic persist.

Nearly all of the 28 speakers supported a renovated path but worried that the work, coupled with adding a portion of Top of the World Drive to the city’s list of public streets, would lure more cars into an area that has narrow streets. A few residents said they had difficulty backing out of their houses already because of the number of cars parked on the streets.

“What can we do about towing?” Mayor Steve Dicterow said. “This is intolerable to me.”

“It’s an unreasonable burden on Top of the World residents to take all the extra traffic you’re going to get,” said Jim Merwin, who has lived in the area since 1977. “No one is going to be able to get in and out. If we have another emergency like the fire of 1993, we’re in trouble.”

The fast-moving wildfire in October of that year damaged or destroyed more than 400 homes in and around Laguna.

Schoolchildren and cyclists have used the path for years but have complained that its surface has deteriorated and its deep crevices make travel on it unsafe.

Planned improvements include shoring up the area with decomposed granite and pervious concrete while creating concrete stairs in certain steep, adjacent portions.

The path begins along Top of the World Drive near a connection point with Alta Laguna Boulevard and crosses two pieces of private land.

The city will bear liability for claims filed regarding operation of its portion of all three streets, City Atty. Phil Kohn said.

Though homeowners have maintained the private roads, Kohn said the public’s previous use of the streets factored heavily in the recommendation to accept the streets as public.

“Staff’s view is that these are not private streets as much as owners of the street can’t exclude members of the public from the streets,” Kohn told the council. “There is an implied offer of dedication.”

Kohn added in a follow-up phone interview that “there has been no effort to limit or restrict access to the trail.”

As for citing or towing illegally parked cars on private streets, the city is currently limited in what it can do.

But Jim Beres, the city’s civilian services supervisor, said that if a majority of property owners sign a petition, the council could adopt a resolution allowing the city to apply its parking rules to private streets.

Residents said one possible way to alleviate speeding cars is to erect gates on certain stretches of Top of the World Drive. Cyclists and pedestrians would still be able to get through and access the trail.

The city researched this option, but state law “prevents installation of gates that would close or provide selective access to public streets or streets historically used by the public,” according to a staff report.

Ultimately, the council voted for the city to set aside $30,000 for possible road improvements to alleviate parking and traffic problems. Though it is unclear what this work might entail, one idea being floated is to make Top of the World Drive a one-way street.

The path project will cost a separate $514,000, including $164,442 in grant funding.

Construction could begin in August and wrap up in October.