Imagine going to spend a day at the beach with friends or family, looking to recharge your batteries at some of California's most treasured destinations.
But before you hit the sand, you encounter razor wire. Or a locked gate. Or an oddly placed boulder. Or steps leading into what appears to be a private shower. Or a bunch of "no parking" and "no trespassing" signs.
Until recently, too many California beachgoers ran into those obstacles -- and more -- because nearby property owners were unlawfully blocking public access to the coast and California authorities' hands were tied in trying to fix the problem. Thanks to a new law, that's changing.
In 2014, the Legislature and Governor gave the California Coastal Commission the authority to fine property owners who intentionally block public access to the coast. That authority was included in the 2015-2016 state budget, based on legislation I had written in 2013 to achieve the same goal.
Previously, the Coastal Commission's only leverage against homeowners blocking beach access was litigation, which wealthy beach house owners and coastal homeowner associations could drag out for years in court. That left beachgoers at the mercy of phony signs, padlocked gates, chains and other illegal impediments meant to mislead and intimidate people from gaining their rightful access to public beaches.
The tools used to block beach access are as creative as they are cynical. Most people don't think to challenge whether a "no parking" or "no trespassing" sign is legally legitimate. And, if someone walks up to steps that appear to lead into a private shower, they would most likely think they had stumbled upon private property , not a cleverly -- and unlawfully -- disguised point of public access. And what parent would want to risk their kids (or dogs) getting harmed by razor wire, as visitors along the Santa Monica Mountains coastal trail encountered?
Now, landowners who illegally block the beach will get 30 days to fix the problem and remove whatever obstacle they erected or face fines.
Fortunately, under the new law, property owners are now channeling their creative energies into settling instead of obstructing, and just the threat of fines has meant we have been able to resolve several longstanding violations without having to actually levy any fines.
In Malibu, less than six months after we gave the California Coastal Commission the authority to assess fines, the longstanding chained and locked gate to famous Paradise Cove Pier has been opened, exorbitant walk-in fees have been dropped, and misleading signs have come down, allowing surfers and beachgoers unrestricted access to the beach and waves.
In Avila Beach the barbed wire, locked gates and "no trespassing" signs along the popular Ontario Ridge Trail to Pirates Cove have all been removed.
In Pacific Beach, a homeowners association along Riviera Shores finally agreed to install new access signs at both street and beach level last month after years of back-and-forth with the Coastal Commission over being out of compliance with the law. These access points are particularly important to accommodate beachgoers in this high-density neighborhood.
And in La Jolla, Coastal Commission enforcement staff found back in 2012 that required public access signage had not been installed on a winding pathway through a large residential complex. That path leads to Horseshoe Reef, a sandy beach that boasts excellent fishing and surfing. Without appropriate signage, there is little to no chance that a potential beachgoer would know of the opportunity for public access. When the Coastal Commission notified the homeowners association about its new enforcement power, the association committed to installing signs within 30 days of Coastal Commission staff's sign-off on the signs' design and location.
All these cases and many others along the Southern, Central and Northern California coast were longstanding disputes that have been resolved without a single dollar in fines having to be levied.
San Diego has more than 70 miles of amazing coastline that is a benefit to residents and a magnet for visitors. The entire California coast is an iconic symbol of the Golden State and is integral to our economy and our lifestyle. In the wintertime, millions of our neighbors to the North and East look out of frosted windows over snow-piled drives and dream of California beaches. Our giving this important enforcement tool to the California Coastal Commission is helping keep that dream alive -- and open to everyone.