DANA POINT, Calif. — In the beach town where California's surf industry first took root, where the loss of an epic break to a marina helped prompt the passage of the nation's most stringent coastal access laws, few imagined the city would go to such lengths to keep people off the beach.
But in the minds of many coastal activists, Dana Point has emerged as ground zero in the battle between the public's right to its coast and rich homeowners who want to keep the soft-sand beaches to themselves. In the last year, this city enacted an emergency ordinance, assigned a beach monitor of sorts and even went to court – all in an effort to lock prior to sundown a pathway through a private neighborhood with multi-million dollar mansions.
"It's kind of come full circle with this," said resident Rick Erkeneff, who has been surfing Strand Beach for 30 years. "It's one little beach accessway, but ... if they can do this, any city can put up gates and limit the hours."
Coastal access is a point of pride in California, where the state's strict coastal laws mandate as much public passage as possible. Even so, legal battles by homeowners to stall or limit beach access in communities such as Malibu have dragged on for decades.
Dana Point claims the restrictions and green iron gates are necessary to protect the public in one of the toniest parts of Southern California from teenage drinking, sex parties and drugs. But a judge last month admonished the city, saying it had not shown legitimate examples that such a nuisance existed.
"Why should beach access to the public be denied in favor of a private property owner's interests?" Judge Joan M. Lewis asked in a tentative ruling in April. "The Coastal Act contains a goal of maximizing public access and recreation."
Despite this, the gates and sign announcing the pathway's hours remain.
Calls to city officials were referred to Patrick Munoz, one of the attorneys handling two lawsuits involving the Coastal Commission and Surfrider Foundation protesting the access limits. Munoz said the gates are necessary because the development has had a long history of problems from environmental extremists making threats to vandals causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage with glue guns to looky-loos wandering into unlocked homes.
"It's preposterous to say we're limiting access," he said. "We're not cutting off access which is the accusation we keep hearing."
The project, The Strand at Headlands, billed as the last large oceanfront private residential development in Southern California, features 121 acres of oceanfront property and includes more than 93 acres for parks and open space. On either side of the secluded beach is a commanding bluff that tumbles into the kelp strewn water below. The city's namesake, author Richard Henry Dana, called it the most romantic point on the coast.
This striking coastline and a rolling wave called Killer Dana also became the epicenter of the nation's surf culture in the 1950s and 1960s. A group nicknamed the Dana Point Mafia included the founders of Hobie surfboards, Clark Foam, Surfer magazine and others. The wave and a long swath beach was later marred when Dana Point Harbor was built – a jarring development that eventually contributed to the creation of both the Coastal Act and Surfrider Foundation.
Against this backdrop, the Coastal Commission approved a large multimillion-dollar project in the early 2000s but required the Headlands Reserve developer, Sanford Edward, to construct new public accessways. Edward did build public paths along the bluff inlaid with colorful scenes of sea life, a steep staircase and tram down to the beach on the north side of the development, along with a manicured pathway through the middle of the development where $20 million homes continue to be constructed.
In May 2009 the city adopted an ordinance to set the hours for the pathway cutting through the development, opening the gates at 8 a.m. and closing – depending on the time of year – at 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. Other accessways down to the beach including a path near the Ritz Carlton are open from 5 a.m. to midnight and don't have gates.
"This is clearly the most convenient and direct route to the beach," said Chad Nelsen, environmental director for Surfrider. "The city from the very beginning has been on the side of the developer."
The Coastal Commission staff warned the city it did not have the authority to limit hours and demanded officials remove the illegal gates. In response, Dana Point officials called a hearing and took advantage of laws allowing cities to regulate hours if they can prove a public nuisance exists.
Documents supporting the creation of such an emergency ordinance cited more than 130 calls for police in one year. The newly created natural resources protection officer tasked with patrolling the site reported issuing trespassing warnings more than twice a week. City officials said problems would only worsen during the impending spring break.
To underscore the urgency of the situation, city staff pointed to what they saw as two particularly egregious offenses that were being criminally prosecuted. One included several women who were caught picnicking and drinking in an environmentally sensitive area. The other caused staff to be concerned that "a significant threat to public safety exists."
"Staff has observed individuals having sunset picnics on vacant residential lots," the report read. "In this regard, staff has observed individuals sitting on ledges and dangling their legs over drops that exceed 50 feet in some cases."
The city sued the Coastal Commission and Surfrider sued the city in 2010, both lawsuits over Dana Point's efforts to limit access. A judge joined the two suits and in the end she determined Dana Point did not prove there was any kind of public nuisance.
She seemed to take particular issue with the city crime reports saying most predated the opening or occurred outside the trails. Most also related to traffic violations or vandalism at the development and did not include reports of injuries, she noted.
Edward said he is the victim and feels harassed by the commission's demands. The developer, who has been billed hundreds of thousands of dollars by the city for the ongoing legal battle, believes the city will appeal.
"I've spent close to $4 million on public access," said Edward. "They have more access now than they ever had."