Push to open Privates Beach near Pleasure Point divides residents

A California Costal Commission enforcement supervisor wants to tear down the fence, saying that it blocks public access and violates the Coastal Act. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

By Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 06/25/16, 4:36 PM PDT | Updated: 5 days ago

A sign outside of the Opal Cliffs private beach warns visitors about the possibility that the locked gate may be removed by order of the California Costal Commission. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
A sign outside of the Opal Cliffs private beach warns visitors about the possibility that the locked gate may be removed by order of the California Costal Commission. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

PLEASURE POINT >> For people who hold a key to the black metal gate at Privates Beach on Opal Cliff Drive, the well-kept park is a safe place to leave a bike and enjoy a beach and surf spot without the crowds of nearby beaches in Pleasure Point and Live Oak.

For others who can’t or won’t pay $100 for a key and one year of access, it’s an exclusive beach that violates the California Coastal Act’s mandate to “maximum access” to the shoreline.

The debate about its access dates to the gate’s installation in the 1940s. But a June 7 letter from a California Coastal Commission enforcement supervisor renewed that debate. It demanded that the Opal Cliffs Recreation District that manages the gate and park to remove the fence and stop charging for access.

Although anyone can buy a key at Freeline Design Surf Shop on 41st Avenue, the recreation district is similar to a homeowners association for residents of the Opal Cliff Drive neighborhood.

“They’ve got a locked gate and fence between the public and the ocean, and that locked gate and fence doesn’t have a permit,” said Pat Veesart, the Coastal Commission’s Northern California enforcement supervisor. “The Coastal Commission’s mandate is maximum access. It’s in violation of the Coastal Act and the Santa Cruz County Local Coastal Program, which is the county’s plan for coastal access.”

Veesart’s 11-page letter outlined the history of the fence, some earlier agreements with the Coastal Commission and a Thursday deadline to remove the fence and stop charging for access. If the recreation district leaders fail to comply, the letter threatened fines of up to $11,250 per day.

Veesart said in an interview with the Sentinel on Friday that such a fine is unlikely if “everyone’s working in good faith to resolve the issue.”

He said, “We’re trying to have a serious conversation with the district.”

Veesart said he started as the enforcement supervisor in the Coastal Commission’s office at 725 Front St. in Santa Cruz about 18 months ago. He said staff sent the letter in June because staff finally had some time to tackle the issue. There are six enforcement officers in the state.

Mark Massara, a San Francisco-based attorney who represents the Opal Cliffs Recreation District, said he was blind sided by the June 7 letter to dismantle the fence. He said the Coastal Commission approved a fence on the property in 1981 and renewed it in 1991.

“I think what’s going on is the staff revisited their decisions and their trying to rewrite the rules,” Massara said Friday.

The fence was 6 feet tall during the 1990s. People often jumped it, vandalized the park and had bonfires on the beach, according to Massara and neighbors. Pieces of the wooden staircase to the beach sometimes were hacked off and burned in the beach fires, Massara said.

District leaders responded by building a 9-foot wrought iron fence, improving the park and rebuilding the staircase. The fee for the gate keys was raised from $20 to $100. People in the neighborhood now can show a utility bill at the surf shop and pay $50 rather than $100.

In 2006, the recreation district applied for a Coastal Commission permit for the fence that they already had built, Veesart said. There also was a proposal to charge a $5 entry fee at the gate.

The Coastal Commission held a hearing about the permit in San Diego in 2009, but the issue was tabled. Coastal Commission staff nor the recreation district followed up on it, Massara said.

Veesart reopened the issue in spring 2015 with a letter the district. Massara met him in June 2015 and sent a letter a few weeks later that proposed to file for a new permit for the fence. There was no communication for nearly a year, then came the recent letter to remove the fence or pay fines.

“It’s a lovely beach and I’d hate to see it go the way of Sunny Cove,” Massara said. By comparison, Massara said, Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputies respond to about 700 calls for service for various scofflaws at that beach.

Massara said there are 300 to 500 keys sold annually. The recreation district also receives some tax revenue from more than 400 homes in the area. It manages an annual budget from $40,000 to $70,000, Massara said. The money goes toward upkeep of the park and pays $10 an hour or more for “gate ambassadors” to open and close the gate, watch bikes and help people carry stand-up paddleboards and other gear to the beach.

Sloppy accounting by the district came to light in 2013 when about $11,000 went missing from the budget, according to audits reviewed by the Sentinel. Included in one budget was a $337 bar tab and $772 food bill from Capitola’s Canton Chinese restaurant with a note that read “June 9th — Freeline party.”

Outside the gate on Saturday morning, some residents argued about access rules next to a sign that stated “Emergency Alert” about the proposed fines. The sign was posted by leaders of the recreation district. A gate ambassador said that he and others collected more than 500 signatures on a recent petition to keep the fence.

“I’ve seen the devastation before the (new) fence,” said Shawna Griffith, a 52-year-old resident of the Opal Cliffs neighborhood. When the old staircase had been dismantled by vandals, Griffith said, kids stepped on nails on the beach and others were injured from falling down the stairs. Sryinges were found in the sand. Now it’s clean and safe.

“It’s a blessing. It’s a positive things for families and anyone who wants to can come,” said Griffith.

Cara Finn, a 56-year-old who lives in Capitola, said she often walks by the park and wished it were free to enter. “A hundred dollars, that’s a lot. It’s obviously a club,” Finn said.

Massara also has been on the other side of beach access battles. He has represented the Surfrider Foundation in legal proceedings to reopen Martins Beach in San Mateo County after Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla tried to prevent access. Massara said that case was different because no access was offered at Martins Beach. Massara added that surfers such as himself can get to Privates easily by paddling from another staircase at The Hook.

When asked if provincialism from surfers played a role in the recreation district’s stance to keep the gate, Massara replied, “I’m not going to say it’s not part of this.”

Veesart, the Coastal Commission enforcement supervisor, said there are surfers who like the restricted access to Privates because it’s a less crowded surf spot.

“It’s a funny thing where surfers want to have access to 100 percent of the California coast, but they also want their own surf spots,” Veesart said.