California regulators weigh public access to gated beach

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — The California Coastal Commission was set to decide Thursday whether access to a secluded beach can be restricted by a 9-foot iron fence, a locking gate with a $100 annual key fee and a gate attendant.

The commission will vote on whether the resident-run program that has regulated access to Privates Beach south of San Jose for more than 50 years is allowed to continue, the Los Angeles Times reported .

Santa Cruz County regulators first allowed residents of a winding road dotted with multimillion-dollar homes near the beach to install the gate and issued keys to control access to it in 1963.

But the commission now will take into account a new state law that asks it to consider not only environmental effects but also the impact of its decisions on underrepresented communities.

"It's like a private beach club," said Patrick Veesart, who oversees enforcement of the state's coastal law in Northern California. "You're using money to filter out people who are not local, who don't live in multimillion-dollar homes right by the ocean. . This is a case that could set really bad precedents."

The Opal Cliffs Recreation District rebuilt the wooden stairs leading to the secluded beach and cleaned trash and graffiti from the area that was a popular spot for parties.

The commission's decision comes as high-powered interests across the state are fighting to keep beaches to themselves.

At Hollister Ranch, the public was outraged that coastal officials quietly agreed to give up their only shot at public land access after a decades-long battle with wealthy owners. At Martins Beach, a Silicon Valley billionaire is trying to bring his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opal Cliffs residents say they have been unfairly lumped together with the billionaires as the commission focuses on environmental justice.

"They're chasing ghosts and fighting a problem that doesn't exist," said Mark Massara, a coastal advocate who fought against the Martins Beach owner and is now representing the Opal Cliffs Recreation District. "The commission has enormous social justice issues up and down the coast — this isn't one of them."

With the gate's future in limbo, the district has taken steps to appease its critics. It began opening the beach free of charge last year from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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