By Nicholas Ibarra | | Santa Cruz Sentinel

PUBLISHED: December 18, 2018 at 5:55 pm | UPDATED: December 18, 2018 at 5:57 pm

APTOS “” The latest in a series of beach-access disputes came to a head Tuesday morning as work crews demolished a wall and a fence blocking off both sides of what officials say is a public walkway overlooking Rio Del Mar Beach in Aptos.

Apparently put up by privacy-seeking homeowners decades ago, the barriers restricted access to hundreds of feet of beachfront esplanade that state and county officials insist is public property and part of the California Coastal Trail network. Some of the homeowners, meanwhile, claim the property is rightfully theirs.

Pat Veesart, the Coastal Commission’s northern California enforcement supervisor, said the barrier removal is part of an “important public access case.”

“For decades, the homeowners have used the esplanade as if it was their own property, denying the public use of it and forcing moms with strollers to push their strollers down the middle of the street,” Veesart said.

The esplanade, which officials insist is a public right of way, appears to have functioned as a private patio of sorts for guests of and residents of the row of 29 Rio Del Mar homes known as “Beach Island.”

Many of the homes appear to be used as vacation rentals. Online listings for some of the properties, which command premium rates, advertise a “large beachfront patio” in reference to the esplanade.

Public ownership of the esplanade is disputed by seven of the homeowners in a November complaint filed in Santa Cruz County Superior Court after the county installed Coastal Access signs.

The complaint requests that the homeowners’ historical use of the area be honored and states the property owners are entitled to quiet enjoyment of the area between their homes and the beach.

However, an assessor’s map, dated February 1999, depicts a 37-foot public esplanade between the Beach Island homes and Rio Del Mar Beach “” and no back patios.

Second District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, who has been working for years to open public access to the space, said he doesn’t think it’s credible that the homeowners believed they owned the property. If they believed they owned the property, he said, they should have been paying property taxes on the extra space for decades.

“This would mean either they thought it was public and they didn’t owe the money, or they thought it was private and they would owe somewhere in the millions of dollars of back property taxes “” which makes us believe, pretty clearly, that they believed it was public the entire time but have just been benefiting from blocking off the access,” Friend said.

An attorney representing the seven homeowners in the ongoing lawsuit had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

Enforcement resumes

The Coastal Commission sent the homeowners a series of violation notices, starting in October 2017, according to Veesart.

But the commission held off on enforcement after homeowners cleared some of the worst encroachments “” although, not the fences “” and sat down with county officials to discuss a path forward.

Those discussions, however, appeared to reach an impasse with the filing of the November lawsuit.

Now enforcement proceedings are back on track, Veesart said. He sent the homeowners a letter on Dec. 13 advising them to remove any unpermitted property that encroaches on the esplanade by Jan. 11 or face fines and other potential penalties.

Neighbors take advantage

Dozens of pedestrians and cyclists on Tuesday were quick to take advantage of the newly opened pathway.

“I’m super happy as someone who lives in Soquel that we can walk here,” said Theresa Herning Cook, a longtime area resident who was out walking with a group along the esplanade just hours after the fences were taken down.

Herning Cook, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, said she had “no idea” the esplanade was supposed to be open to the public.

Now she plans to make it part of her routine. “Unless people started throwing eggs or tomatoes at me,” she joked.

Having lived near the coast herself, Herning Cook said she understands why the homeowners would prefer if pedestrians weren’t walking right by their windows and sliding glass doors.

“But when you live in a touristy place, and it’s on the coast, everybody else gets to enjoy it,” she said. “That’s just life.”