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Battle Over Access To Gated Santa Cruz Beach Shows No Sign Of Ending

SANTA CRUZ (KPIX 5) -- In another test of the public's right to access California's coast, a neighborhood group in Santa Cruz has withdrawn its application with a state commission to maintain a locked gate at a secluded beach.

Thursday was supposed to be a critical hearing by the California Coastal Commission over the fate of Privates Beach, a secluded cove in Santa Cruz that is a popular spot for surfers. But access to the beach is managed by a the local Opal Cliffs Recreation District, which has put up a nine-foot-tall locked gate and charges users a $100 fee for a key.

The commission demanded the group apply for a permit in order to charge admission. Commission staff had been preparing for months to decide the fate of the nine-foot-tall iron gate at a meeting Thursday.

But on Wednesday, the attorney for the recreation district sent a letter withdrawing their coastal development permit application, saying what the commission was proposing - year-round free access and a shorter gate - was unacceptable.

Kiet Do: "What do you say to folks who say that by pulling the permit, this is basically giving the coastal commission the middle finger?"

"Oh no, it's not that at all. We're looking to work directly with the commission," said attorney Mark Massara. "And if we have to find a way to reorient that discussion, we're more than willing to do that."

The district needs that permit, because the gate is unpermitted, illegal, and in violation of California's Coastal Act, which calls for maximum beach access for the public.

Right now, Privates Beach is free and open to the public during summer daylight hours. But at night, and in the fall, winter and spring, beach-goers need a $100 gate key to get in.

Kiet Do: "The gate's already open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. What's the problem?

"How would you know that if you weren't from Opal Cliffs?" said coastal commission enforcement officer Pat Veesart. "The gate's closed. It doesn't look like it's open. The gate and fence are still there. They still present a physical and psychological barrier to access. That's a problem."

The fees collected pay for landscaping, maintenance of a wooden staircase and a gatekeeper. The district says getting rid of the $100 fee and the gate would mean ravers, vandals, drug addicts, and the homeless would wreck the beach, and leave no way to pay for maintenance.

"We're just concerned that the coastal commission's efforts to eliminate all fundraising for the park will spell the doom of the district," said Massara.

Coastal Commissioner Aaron Peskin questioned how the fees were actually being spent. "The vast majority of the funds that they raise every year actually go to pay a guard to keep people out," said Peskin. "So that's $30,000 of the $56,000 that they raise every year. Ultimately this little, special district really should be turned into a county park."

Kiet Do: "What do you say to poor families who say $100 is too much to spend?"

"I say it's open and free all summer long, as I just said," said Shawna, a local resident who only gave her first name. She lives near the beach and has been coming here for years - and had some harsh criticism of the commission.

"Where were they years ago when there were needles on the beach and bonfires?" said Shawna. "They didn't care about our beach. They don't care about the ocean life. They just want to make it open to fight their cause, and to me it's an inappropriate cause."

The coastal commission says it is being flexible about the gate and understand the need for it, especially at night. But commissioners say the gate needs to be lower and left opened year-round.

The next steps in the dispute are unclear. The commission has previously threatened the Opal Cliffs district with fines of up to $11,000 a day.

The brewing legal fight comes as high-powered interests across the state are fighting to keep beaches to themselves.

In Santa Barbara County, wealthy landowners and the coastal commission agreed on a settlement to allow limited access to a stretch of pristine coastline. Local residents says the agreement largely shuts out the public unless they can reach the beach from the sea.

Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla wants to restrict people from using a road through his property to get to Martins Beach, near Half Moon Bay. Massara, who's a surfer, is part of the legal fight against Khosla.


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