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Orange County looks at whether a gate should have accompanied Table Rock Beach stairs

A beachgoer approaches the stairs on the sand at Table Rock Beach in South Laguna.
A beachgoer approaches the stairs on the sand at Table Rock Beach in South Laguna.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

South Laguna residents have grown tired of a range of activities they say are pervasive at Table Rock Beach, a list that includes after-dark parties and recreational drug use that have impacted the homeowner experience.

Those concerns led to resident John Thomas asking the office of Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett (5th District) to look for the original documents pertaining to the development of the stairs that grant public access to Table Rock Beach.

The documents that turned up in an initial search included a Planning Commission document discussing the development of the public access point, which was put at the intersection of Bluff Drive and Table Rock Drive.

South Laguna had yet to be annexed by the city of Laguna Beach when the project was being considered in 1986, and the county prepared a draft environmental impact report. A pedestrian gate was among the mitigation measures referenced as a condition of approval “because the access is proximate to residences.” It would have restricted public access from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Two beachgoers walk down to the sand on the stairs to Table Rock Beach in South Laguna.
Two beachgoers walk down to the sand on the stairs to Table Rock Beach in South Laguna.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“When people make a lot of noise in the middle of the night, it’s like an echo chamber,” Thomas said. “You can really hear it. They wake you in the middle of the night and stuff like that. There’s a big cave, a natural cave down here, which becomes very attractive.”

James Dinwiddie, deputy chief of staff for Bartlett’s office, said that the supervisor’s office asked O.C. Parks to continue the search for historical documentation relating to the Table Rock Beach stair tower project, and O.C. Parks has engaged the California Coastal Commission on the matter.

“O.C. Parks recently received the archived project approval documents from the 1980s from the California Coastal Commission,” O.C. Parks spokeswoman Marisa O’Neil said in an email. “The documents are currently being reviewed by County staff. O.C. Parks and the California Coastal Commission are working toward identifying next steps.”

A view looking south at Table Rock Beach in South Laguna on Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

While the debate goes on regarding whether Table Rock Beach should have a gate at its point of public entry, O’Neil said that all county-operated beaches are patrolled by a private security company on a nightly basis.

The small, beautiful beach has its charm for the locals, but in recent years, some South Laguna residents say that the rise of social media has only enhanced the popularity of Table Rock Beach.

Greg O’Loughlin, a resident of the Table Rock community and the president of the South Laguna Civic Assn., said he feels that social media has led to people looking for more exciting ways to get pictures, sometimes putting themselves at risk to reach that goal.

One such location is adjacent to the larger cove at Table Rock Beach. Separated by a rock formation that spans the beach and goes out into the ocean, a cove known to the locals as Secret Cove is on the other side.

“This kind of behavior is happening really everywhere, and I think South Laguna is feeling it a little more because we’re a little late to the game,” O’Loughlin said. “We’ve been secret and off the map and not very public, and now everybody knows, everybody knows where it is, so the pressure is on.”

Two beachgoers hike to a cove at Table Rock Beach in South Laguna.
Two beachgoers hike to a cove at Table Rock Beach in South Laguna.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

O’Loughlin added that the South Laguna Civic Assn. has not determined whether it would advocate for a gate at the Table Rock Beach stairway, but he expressed concern that the area will continue to be problematic.

“The graffiti that we’re getting on the beach is more,” O’Loughlin said. “Fires in the cave have always been an issue, but the fact that we’ve had more rescues and more [drowning] deaths, that alone should be enough to get everyone’s attention.”

Some South Laguna residents have noted a tension between public access and public behavior. Thousand Steps Beach, which is also located in South Laguna, does have a gate that limits the hours of public access. That has not, however, prevented the issue of graffiti.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people that come to the beach here are fine, but there’s always the 1% that is either going to do stuff that’s going to get themselves in trouble, or they’re going to set a fire, or make a lot of noise, or do something that impacts other people,” Thomas said.

“Personally, I think the county did the right thing by saying we need to treat this beach a little differently, we need to treat it more like Thousand Steps, and then they didn’t do it, and then the question is, ‘Why not?’”

Beachgoers finish the climb of stairs at 9th St at Thousand Steps Beach in South Laguna.
Beachgoers finish the climb of stairs at 9th St at Thousand Steps Beach in South Laguna.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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