By David Sneed

Pirate’s Cove poses a profound conundrum for the San Luis Obispo County Parks and Recreation Department.

On the one hand, the 55-acre county park is one of the most beautiful and popular spots on the county’s coastline with spectacular ocean views from blufftop trails that lead to a secluded sandy beach. On the other hand, some of the park has become a litter-strewn mess that attracts illegal nighttime activities the county lacks the money and regulatory authority to control.

Two years ago, the county was planning $1.5 million worth of improvements to the park, which lies between Avila Beach and Shell Beach, but the California Coastal Commission rejected the permit needed for the work. Since then, the $1.5 million has been either withdrawn or redirected to other parks projects.

“What we need to do is a minimum of improvements to make the park safe and manageable,” said Nick Franco, county parks director. “It is not safe now.”

At a meeting in Ventura in 2014, the Coastal Commission denied the bulk of $1.5 million in improvements to the park that had been a decade in the planning. The planned improvements had included paving the parking lot, installing restrooms and improving beach access with a path and stairway.

The permit to do the work was appealed by local users who want to keep the park as it is. They said the improvements went too far and would have deprived the park of its rustic charm.

The Coastal Commission agreed.

The denial was greeted with shock and disbelief by county parks staff and the agencies that agreed to fund the improvements, said county Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes Pirate’s Cove.

“All of the improvements were intended to increase coastal access, which is one of the main missions of the Coastal Commission,” Hill said.

Also known as Cave Landing because of the wave-carved sea caves along its coastal bluffs, Pirate’s Cove has the distinction of being the county’s only clothing-optional beach.

Franco is quick to point out that nude sunbathers on the beach are not the problem, and there are no plans to ban that activity. The problems occur primarily at night when the park is a magnet for people who want to drink heavily, do illegal drugs and have sex.

Hill said his office is increasingly getting complaints from the public about the deplorable conditions and crime so bad that it is discouraging families and tourists from visiting the area.

“We need to find a solution that is acceptable to the Coastal Commission and allows folks to bring their families to the park without worrying about illegal drug use and prostitution,” Hill said. “We are trying to take the lightest approach and still make it a cleaner and safer place.”

Littering, vandalism and spray-painting graffiti are also common illegal activities. It is common to find trails and the parking lot littered with used condoms, broken beer bottles and castoff underwear.

If you come up there at night to do drugs and find the park full of families stargazing, you are going to turn around and find somewhere else to go.

Nick Franco, SLO County parks director, on efforts to clean up Pirate’s Cove

The county parks department has organized several cleanups and brush removal projects at the park, but it had to call them off because of the discovery of hypodermic needles and other dangerous drug paraphernalia, Franco said. Volunteers with the Whales Cave Conservancy regularly pick up trash at the park and place it in bags that are later collected by parks staff.

Since the denial, agencies such as the California Coastal Conservancy and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments have withdrawn their grants, which made up about half of the project’s funding. The other half of the money was county parks department funds that have since been redirected to other parks improvement projects.

Now, two years after the denial, Franco and Hill think the time may be right for developing a scaled-back improvement project that would help address the park’s most pressing problems and hopefully be acceptable to the community and the Coastal Commission. They would seek various state grants to fund the work.

Planning is still in its very early stages, but Franco has this tentative list of permit provisions his department will be considering:

▪ Hours of operation: Although unpopular, restricting either parking or access to the park during nighttime hours is vital to getting illegal activity under control, Franco said. Hours of operation give law enforcement probable cause to question those in violation of the rules and to crack down on illegal activities. Patrols of the park by sheriff’s deputies are infrequent because the likelihood of an arrest is low and because deputies are spread thinly during the night hours, Franco said.

▪ Signage: Signs would warn park visitors of the hazards, such as vertical cliffs and steep trails. Cal Fire and other agencies perform multiple rescues annually for people who have fallen. In March, a 22-year-old man on a bluff fell to his death on the beach.

▪ Trash cans: Although trash is collected at the park, it would be cleaner and more efficient to have large, secure trash receptacles on-site.

▪ Parking lot safety: The dirt parking lot is deeply rutted and uneven to the point that it is nearly unusable by regular street vehicles. The county could either grade the lot to make it more level or pave it.

“On the bright side, we are providing a lot of business for car-alignment shops.” Franco joked.

▪ Restrooms: This is a public sanitation issue. People who spend most of the day at the park inevitably need to use a restroom and now there are none. It is unclear at this point whether the county would use permanent or portable restrooms.

The project would require a coastal development permit, which means it could have to go through the county’s standard planning process and could be appealed to the Coastal Commission. That process typically takes two years to complete. No cost estimate is available yet. Some of the previously planned work that would not likely be part of the new project includes new trail construction and stairways to the beach. It is also unclear whether graffiti and invasive weed removal would be part of the new cleanup plan.

Hill is hoping to expedite the process by convincing Coastal Commission staff that the scaled-back improvements would be in substantial conformance with coastal planning rules.

“I am trying to look at this from the least political standpoint as possible,” Hill said. “What we will propose will make the park a cleaner place and a safer place.”

Franco said he is optimistic that these scaled-back improvements would be effective because they would begin building momentum that would eventually force out the drug users and other undesirables.

“If you come up there at night to do drugs and find the park full of families stargazing, you are going to turn around and find somewhere else to go,” he said.

David Sneed: 805-781-7930, @davidsneedSLO

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