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CHASING DOWN THE MUSE: Must Laguna forbid camping on the beach?

I want to camp on the beach.

I’ve wanted to camp on the beach in Laguna since I was a little girl. Set up a tent right next to the water and listen to the waves all night long. Wake up early and drag my feet through the wet sand and explore the tide pools.

Yes, I’ve wanted to camp on the beach in Laguna for as long as I can remember. Except that it was never legal. Even my Brownie troop couldn’t get a permit.

So it was with no great angst that I read about the city’s repeal of their ordinance prohibiting pitching a tent or sleeping on public property, and even greater anger that the ACLU would waste its precious resources threatening Laguna Beach. Certainly there are more important liberties to defend than the right of homeless to sleep anywhere they want short of private property.

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That’s a great deal of territory if you think about it. Coast Highway and the Canyon Road are out — those are state properties, and the state hasn’t capitulated yet. But the parks, sidewalks and sandy beaches seem “open for business” under current conditions.

I can only imagine the summer throngs with tent cities once again covering the beaches. Old photographs in the lobby of the Hotel Laguna demonstrate this part of our heritage. Maybe this is a return to our roots — a true turning point for the Village to reclaim its heart and soul.

City Attorney Phil Kohn was quoted as saying that lodging on public or private property without permission is still a violation of the statewide loitering law. I am certainly not an attorney, nor an expert on interpretation of the law, but a quick read of the California Penal Code Section 647 seems more concerned with disorderly conduct than with camping out. Issues of concern with Section 647 include: lewd acts, prostitution, begging, loitering around a toilet, peeking in doors or windows, being a suspected felon, or difficult to control for medical reasons — for a short summary.

The meat of Kohn’s argument must lie in 647(e) : Who lodges in any building, structure, vehicle or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner or person entitled to the possession or in control of it. Back to square one. Permission to use public property. And who, exactly, owns the public property in Laguna Beach? By various definitions that would be: property owned by the government or one of its agencies, divisions or entities. Commonly a reference to parks, playgrounds, streets, sidewalks, schools, libraries and other property regularly used by the general public.

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If “we” — the citizens of Laguna Beach — own the property, then who gives permission to use it? Can’t we expect our elected city officials to manage it properly in our behalf?

Our right to access public property is not absolute, nor is all government-owned property open to the general public. Government buildings and facilities, airports, prisons, schools, civic centers and stadiums, and state legislators all have restrictions. Our local parks currently have “closed at dusk” regulations. Do our carefully crafted rules — designed for the most part for our protection — fall by the wayside if I choose to pitch a tent at Heisler?

I realize the issue has to do with the problems of the homeless, and I am sympathetic, but not inclined to believe that I — or the city — are responsible for providing housing for those who are without. Mark me callous, but I come from strong Germanic roots that put personal responsibility at the top of the list.

The latest trend in government bailouts has me gagging. I’m beginning to wonder why any of us would want to take care of any of our own problems. Except that the safety net is on our backs — just as the ACLU has placed the homeless. Who is to pay for shelters? Who is to pay for food?

But wait, let me catch my breath. I’ve never been able to afford oceanfront property, but it looks as if now I have the opportunity to share their waterfront views and vistas. I can watch the brilliant sunsets from the sanctity of my newly erected nylon home. My childhood dreams may actually come true.


CATHARINE COOPER loves wild places — and camping on remote beaches. She can be reached at cooper@catharinecooper.com


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