Privates Beach public-access fight continues as park district blows off Coastal Commissionadmin
SCOTTS VALLEY – Delaying, for now, a public showdown over access to a Live Oak pocket beach, the Opal Cliffs Recreation District backed out of efforts on Wednesday to legalize a 9-foot fence and $100-a-year key card for Privates Beach.
The recreation district was scheduled to appear before the California Coastal Commission on Thursday to discuss after-the-fact permits for a long-standing tradition of limiting access to a park — and the beach below — to those who purchase a key card annually at a 41st Avenue surf shop. This year, as with last summer, the locking gate has been left open between Memorial Day and Labor Day at Opal Cliffs Park.
Privates Beach, located off Opal Cliffs Drive, is possibly the only public California beach that requires such an access fee, “which mostly benefits those who live in the immediate area and disproportionately impacts those least able to afford it,” Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz wrote in a statement to the Sentinel.
Coastal Commissioner Donnie Brownsey said Thursday morning at a meeting at the Scotts Valley Hilton that she did not think she was alone in her disappointment with Opal Cliffs Recreation District’s withdrawal of their permit application from the day’s agenda.
“To me, this was and is an extremely important case with respect to access,” Brownsey said. “I just want to note that I think the report did an excellent job analyzing the various issues associated with this particular situation and that while the case has been withdrawn from today’s agenda, I do hope that staff will prioritize resolution of this situation, because, in that particular area — I should just say, statewide, our beaches and maximum access to those beaches are just so critically important.”
After the permit withdrawal, the Coastal Commission’s Central Coast District enforcement division sent a letter to Santa Cruz County planning officials on Thursday requesting that they open an enforcement case regarding unpermitted development, such as the park’s 9-foot fence and gate, said the commission’s Central Coast District Manager Susan Craig. The Coastal Commission is hoping to work with the county to bring the recreation district into compliance, and has given the county until July 20 to signal their willingness to participate, Craig said.
It’s unclear what enforcement may entail, but Craig said fines could be considered. The Opal Cliffs beach public access issue has statewide implications, Craig said.
Previously, the Coastal Commission threatened the district with an $11,250-a-day fine for limiting public access. The commission’s website also lists potential fines for unpermitted developments of up to $15,000 per violation, per day.
Mark Massara, attorney for the recreation district, said he was disappointed with the Coastal Commission’s staff recommendation to approve the permit on the condition that free daytime access is required year-round, the existing 9-foot fence and gate be replaced with a retractable fence/gate as high as 6 feet, and a park attendant program be discontinued. Refusing to participate in the hearing, Massara said, extends a protection to rights the Opal Cliffs Recreation District board believes were enshrined in a 1981 use permit and 1991 property deed restrictions. Those protections would be lost if the district willingly subjected itself to updates, he said.
In the letter accompanying the district’s withdrawal from the process, Massara described Coastal Commission staff recommendation as “repudiating its own past actions and this commission’s prior approvals” that had been relied on for decades in park operations. After the meeting, Massara cited a 1991 park deed restriction, signed by the Coastal Commission, allowing for a key-access fee program sufficient to fund annual district operations.
“My advice throughout this thing has been: Why don’t you compromise with us, let us do some legitimate fundraising, and cap it,” Massara said. “Then, in the future, if we ever want to raise it, we’d have to come back to you. But instead, they just want to eliminate everything. We’ll do a lot but chop our own head off and put ourselves out of business — that doesn’t make any sense.”
Although an ongoing area of dispute between the recreation district and Coastal Commission’s enforcement arm for more than a decade, the issue most recently came to a head in June 2016, when Coastal Commission representatives ordered the fence be removed and free access be returned to beach users, or face fines. Proponents of the park’s gated-access have cited the beach’s previous history with vandalism and vagrancy as reasons for continuing to have limited access and on-site paid part-time park monitors. Key fees have traditionally paid for “gate ambassadors” to open and close the gate, park landscaping, beach stair maintenance and more at the site, near Opal Cliff and Court drives.
In December, the Santa Cruz County Planning Commission approved Privates’ 9-foot fence, gate and locking mechanism, nearby pavement improvements and addition of a retaining wall, landscaping and irrigation features. The approval, however, came with the caveat that the project requires a coastal development permit and a development permit. In March, the Coastal Commission voted to move forward in challenging the county permit approval, and set this week’s meeting a follow-up. After the March hearing, Massara told the Sentinel that “we think (the decision) is unfortunate, but we very much look forward to a meeting in Santa Cruz in which the community can express the support for the park to the commission directly.”