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Santa Cruz, Calif., neighborhood rejects state orders to open beach for free

Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. -- Rather than negotiating with coastal officials as planned this week, a Santa Cruz neighborhood group said Wednesday it doesn't need renewed permission to charge a $100 annual fee to access a county park known by locals as Privates Beach.

The Opal Cliffs Recreation District has argued that it already has the right, established by state and county permits, to sell gate keys and use proceeds to keep the beach clean and safe.

But the California Coastal Commission stepped in and voided the entire gate operation, citing the state's landmark Coastal Act, which declares that access to the beach is a fundamental right guaranteed to everyone. The commission demanded that the neighborhood group start the permit process from scratch, but in a bold move district leaders fought back by withdrawing from the process entirely.

The move sets up a legal fight over the future of the beach. If the gate operation remains in effect, it would be the first time a public beach in California is allowed to charge for access itself.

Talks leading up to this week's permit hearing, scheduled for Thursday in Scotts Valley, hit an impasse over what, exactly, compromise looks like.

"What coastal staff is proposing is entirely unreasonable, it's irrational. They're overreaching and trying to vitiate the entire permit history of the park," said Mark Massara, the lawyer representing the neighborhood district. "We're confident that we're acting legally and look forward to future discussions with the commission."

The commission, in its staff recommendations, had offered what it said was a balance between public beach access and residents' safety concerns.

Staff recommended free year-round access from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. Gate guards must go, staff said, but they proposed allowing the gate to be closed at night. The 9-foot-tall gate itself should be replaced by a fence no taller than 6 feet.

"We actually left the door open for the gate and fence to remain, subject to it being unlocked during daylight hours, saying, 'Well, there may be a legit public safety concern,' " said Patrick Veesart, who oversees enforcement of the state's coastal law in Northern California. "Ordinarily, we're pretty hardcore about wanting access 24/7."

The district's permit history is central to the access battle. In 1949, the county gave residents the authority to manage this beach by recognizing them as a special district composed of elected volunteers.

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