AVALON — For the last 40 years, visitors to this quaint town have known that they can go out and get dirty while enjoying the rugged natural beauty of Santa Catalina Island. For three bucks, they could get a towel, a bar of soap and a hot shower at the public bathhouse.
But visitors may just have to go home dirty if Santa Catalina Island Co., the owner of the bathhouse, gets its way.
As often happens with beachfront property, the owner has decided that a different use of the land could command more money. In this case, the property owner wants to replace the bathhouse and adjacent coin laundry with a restaurant operated by a new tenant who would pay more rent.
That may not seem like a big deal, but in Avalon the showers may never be replaced because fresh water has been rationed on the island since a drought in 1978.
Water is allocated by Southern California Edison, which provides both water and electricity, and Edison district manager Angelo Kedis said no new allocations of water can be made unless a new water source is developed or a property owner gives up his share. The company has determined that developing new water sources would not be cost-effective, Kedis added, because the city's permanent population is only 2,100.
Construction in the city has been restricted because of the limited water supply and about 20 applicants are waiting for water allocations so they can begin construction projects.
The restaurant project has been approved by the city Planning Commission, but Mayor George Scott has appealed the decision to the City Council, which will consider the matter on Tuesday. Scott said he is not opposed to a restaurant on the site but is vehementlyagainst losing the showers.
"They are telling the people to shove off," Scott said angrily. "It's their property, but that water was intended for the general public. We depend on tourists and we should take care of them."
When rationing began, commercial land owners were allotted water based on the nature of their business. The allotment stays with the location even if the property is sold or the use changes. The restaurant is expected to use almost as much water as the showers and laundry combined.
Some recent visitors at the showers were surprised when told that the city might lose them. "There's a shower at just about every stop we've made," said Gary Vaughn of Phoenix, who had sailed to Catalina from San Diego the night before and was staying on his boat. "There are plenty of places to eat here. There's not enough showers."
"We'll use it every day," said Dan Mollihan, who was traveling with Vaughn. "If these showers weren't here we'd be taking a lot of spit baths."
After Day on the Beach
Ray and Lani Carter of Simi Valley visited the showers after a day on the beach. "She feels a little funky and wants to take a shower before we take the boat back," Carter said as his wife showered. "Why pay $80 for a room when all you want to do is shower?"
Bob Raine, who has operated the showers for the last two years, said he understands the company's position.
"A property owner should be able to do whatever he wants with his property," Raine said as he handed out small bars of soap and towels to customers. "As a businessman, I understand it was a business decision. I have no grudge. But I think somebody should provide showers somewhere."
Raine said he has found a new, inland location with sufficient water for the laundry, but there is not enough space or water for showers, too.
Not Company's Responsibility
Rudly Piltch, director of planning for the Santa Catalina Island Co., agrees that showers should be provided but said it is not his company's responsibility. "We're not insensitive to the need for showers for the community," he said. "You don't go to any seashore community that doesn't provide public showers and toilets. But that responsibility is rightfully the city's."
Piltch said the city has the resources to provide showers. "Unfortunately, the current City Council has this idea that the community serves them rather than government serving the community," he said.
City Manager John Longley denied that the city has the resources to provide showers. Scott said the only water allocation the city controls has been reserved by voters for future low- and moderate-income housing.
Scott said he is basing his appeal to the City Council on the public's need for the showers. He acknowledged that it may not be private industry's responsibility to provide them, but said the city "can't be expected to provide them overnight."
He said he does not know if he has enough votes on the council to thwart the restaurant project, but that if he is unsuccessful he will appeal to the state Coastal Commission.
Beachfront projects can be appealed to the commission, which was created in the early 1970s to protect the coastline from overdevelopment.