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

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.

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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The Headlands Reserve LLC gained approval from the CCC to develop the area in 2004, provided the development include at least three entry points allowing the public to reach the beach. In May 2009, gates were placed at both ends of the designated paths. The CCC contacted the city in October and November 2009, ordering their removal. In March 2010, the city of Dana Point ignored these orders and, for supposed safety reasons, initiated a curfew on the paths that go through the development, thus allowing for nightly locking of the gate before sunset.

The city pursued a lawsuit against the CCC in May of that year, claiming it had overstepped its jurisdiction by pushing for a permit application for both the gate and curfew. Surfrider countersued the city, claiming officials exaggerated the justification for the curfew and that no crime records supported a curfew. (A judge combined the lawsuits into a single case in San Diego County Superior Court.)

The court ruled against Dana Point and ordered that one gate, located on the bluff near a trailhead leading through a nearby wildlife habitat area, must be removed. However, the main path through the housing development is still gated and subject to the city's curfew hours.

The wildlife trailhead, atop Dana Strand Road, overlooks the gated Headlands community currently in development above Strands Beach. Progress appears slow; most lots are still just that, enumerated plots of land. There are 71 lots in total immediately above the beach, with 47 more across a small street. Of these, approximately half are empty and less than 20 of those that have been built so far appear inhabited.

On a recent weekday visit, a vacationer named Tara, who said she was from Kansas City, was enjoying a relaxing game of putt-putt on one of the lots. “The beach is for everybody. They gotta get down here some way, and that's probably the shortest distance,” Tara says, pointing at the gate.

According to Tara, though, she and other beachgoers don't particularly mind the gate closing at sunset, nor that beyond that gate, security guards patrol the development to keep people off private property. “Everybody who comes here is very chilled out and just wants to be on the beach,” she observes. “They don't really care about what's happening in between the street and the beach.”

Mitch Hutch, an older surfer, grew up in the neighborhood and remembers it as “the last kind of piece of nature that kids could kinda escape to; it was just generally a better experience.”
“You were able to still have some youthful beach fun,” adds Violetta Wolf, another homegrown beachgoer.


Unlike Strands, Capistrano Beach actually has houses on the beach itself. Thirty-seven of them are listed in violation of the Coastal Act for encroachment–official jargon for illegally acting as though your front yard extends further toward the ocean than it actually does by using objects such as lawn furniture, signs, fences and private security guards to deter beachgoers from picking a spot in front of your house.

Back at Strands, Hutch and Wolf are reminiscing about the bygone days of the beach's pre-nouveau riche era. “The people that were rich here before, you wouldn't have been able to tell,” Hutch says. “They had money, but you would've thought that they were homeless. Now, you have this deal with, like, the McMansion people not appreciating the nature that they destroyed that cultured rich people of days of yore would've understood.”

“No one's moved in,” chimes in Wolf, pointing at the vacant houses. “Those have been empty for so long, all the way up to Laguna Beach.”

As far as Hutch is concerned, the battle for beach access in places such as Strands is already lost. “You're fighting development; you're gonna lose eventually,” he says. “Who's gonna stand around and fight for something that's clearly already gone?”

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