Neighbors vow to fight access to gated California beach

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — A neighborhood group in California rejected a potential compromise that would have allowed public access to a gated beach popular with surfers and nudists that it charges a fee to use, saying it is willing to take the fight to court instead.

Santa Cruz County officials first allowed the Opal Cliffs Recreation District to manage the beach that leads to a sandy cove in Opal Cliffs Park 69 years ago, and it put up a fence and began charging an entrance fee by 1963.

Elected volunteers who run the group have since installed a 9-foot (3-meter) iron fence, hired guards and charge $100 a year to enter so-called Privates Beach near a winding road dotted with multimillion-dollar homes.

The California Coastal Commission proposed changes in line with a new state law that asks it to consider not only environmental effects but also the impact of its decisions on underrepresented communities.

The neighborhood group on Wednesday withdrew an application for the commission to approve the gate and fee, saying it didn't agree with commission staffers' recommendations for free year-round access from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset and replacing the gate with a fence no taller than 6 feet (2 meters), the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

Mark Massara, a lawyer for the group, said it became clear that the application process was an effort to eliminate all the park's existing permits.

"What coastal staff is proposing is entirely unreasonable, it's irrational," Massara told the Los Angeles Times. "We're confident that we're acting legally and look forward to future discussions with the commission."

Regulators can try to force Opal Cliffs to take down the gate and eliminate the fees that they say restrict the public from the famous seacoast. Residents say the fee pays for beach cleanup and maintaining a wooden staircase.

"This is the only public beach in California we know of that requires such a fee, which mostly benefits those who live in the immediate area and disproportionately impacts those least able to afford it," commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said. "We intend to explore all possible options going forward, including seeking enforcement remedies."

The dispute is one of many waged in California over the public's right to access the coastline. The brewing legal fight comes as high-powered interests across the state fight to keep beaches to themselves.

Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla wants to restrict people from using a road through his property to get to Martins Beach, near Half Moon Bay. Massara, who's a surfer, is part of the legal fight against Khosla.

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