Where's the Beach? Orange County's War Over Public Sand

Cameron K. Lewis/OC Weekly

It's 7:02 on a recent summer evening, and the main gate at Strands Beach, located next to a parking lot on Selva Road on the north side of Dana Point Harbor, slams shut. The gate, which opens to the Strand at Headlands development, locks at this time every evening from May through September; from October to April, the gate shuts promptly at 5 p.m. Factoring in seasonal changes in daylight as well as daylight saving time, this means that no matter what time of year it is, the sun is still shining when the gate closes and blocks off the beach to all but the wealthy homeowners who live there. (Though there is public access less than 200 yards north of this gate.)

According to California's state constitution, the gate shouldn't even be there: All the sand below the high-tide line is public property, and access should be guaranteed to anyone. But over the past few decades, throughout the state--especially in places such as Malibu and South Orange County--you'd be forgiven for thinking the beach is for millionaires only: Well-heeled homeowners use everything from bogus no-parking or no-trespassing signs to private security firms to keep the public away.

But now the people are finally rising up to reclaim the sand. Or at least the California Coastal Commission (CCC) is; it exists, in part, to litigate against cities, property developers and homeowners who block the beach. According to CCC enforcement officer Andrew Willis, there are currently "60 to 70 open-access violations in Orange County."

Not surprisingly, of these violations, more than half are in South County. Besides the gate at Strands, Capistrano Beach, located on the south side of Dana Point Harbor, is home to front yards that extend beyond the high-tide line, making it impossible for the public to walk along the beach if the tide is too high. Even when the tide is low, residents of each block do everything they can to deter people from walking near their front yards. They've also been accused of using security guards to keep people away.

Eve Steccati/OC Weekly

Via Buena Vista, on the cliffs above San Clemente Beach, is adorned with no-parking signs in an attempt to discourage non-locals. Parking is a chore even for residents; for beachgoers, there's one tiny public lot and the possibility their vehicles will be towed if they are too close to a driveway.

On July 1, the CCC announced it planned to directly ticket Coastal Act violators. As of now, anyone privatizing the beach is subject to a fine at the CCC's discretion, whereas previously homeowners were able to argue their case in court. The tickets can cost violators as much as $11,250 per day. There's little reason to suspect citations will be handed out willy-nilly; the CCC is sending homeowners warning letters, giving them 30 days to comply with the law and avoid the fine.

Surfrider Foundation, a nationwide environmental organization, has led the fight for beach access in Orange County, especially near Dana Point's Headlands, where private developers controversially began building homes more than a decade ago. The group calls its anti-gate litigation efforts the "summer bummer." "We've been battling gates since . . . 2002," legal director Angela Howe says. "The gates were never permitted in the local coastal program amendment; they were never anticipated by Coastal Commission."

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