LONG BEACH — It seemed the most innocent of ideas: to build a paved bicycle path along a three-mile stretch of quiet city beach.
As proponents billed it, the path would plug a missing link in the network of bikeways that stretch from Santa Monica to Newport Beach while opening up Long Beach's pristine sands to scores of bicyclists and other health-conscious Californians.
Who could argue with that?
Plenty of folks. Since the bike path was first proposed in the late 1970s, the idea has been blocked by residents of neighborhoods atop the coastal bluffs overlooking the beach. Opponents have argued that the concrete path would create an environmental eyesore, increase littering and pose a hazard for people trying to reach the water.
Undaunted, supporters of the project have once again raised the issue. On Tuesday, the City Council is to decide, perhaps once and for all, whether the bike path will be built. The council will vote whether to ask for state money to help pay for the bike path and to order its staff to begin drawing up construction plans.
Sharp Words Exchanged
In the meantime, the matter has sparked sharp words between the two sides and renewed the debate over public access to the coast.
Backers of the bike path, which would stretch along the sand from Alamitos Avenue to 54th Place, say that opponents are jealously trying to prevent widespread use of the beach.
"I think they're being unfair and they're trying to keep the beach to themselves," said Matt Sloan, an ophthalmologist and avid bicyclist who is helping to lead the push for a bike path. "They seem to think this is Malibu and that the beach is their own private backyard."
The opponents counter that it is the bike path proponents who are truly being selfish. As they perceive it, a bike path would be used by a few, to the detriment of the hordes of residents who flock to the sand to swim and get a suntan.
"It seems like a crime to me to spend all this money for a relative ly few people at the expense of the majority," said Seymour Rabinowitz, a shoreline resident. "What they're proposing is to literally lay a freeway down the beach. They're talking about putting a strip of concrete right in an area where children, pregnant women and families are trying to get down to the water."
Such sentiments are nothing new.
In 1979, the bike path was approved as part of the city's local coastal plan. As planners saw it then, the bikeway would improve public access to the beach in areas where there is little or no room to park cars. In addition, it would tie together two regional bicycle trails, which run along the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.
Oceanfront residents were unable to keep the path out of the coastal plan. That, however, did not stop them.
'We Backed Off'
To pay for the bike path, the city planned to tap state funds. But when the decision came before the council in 1980, seaside residents packed City Hall to protest. The council failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to request the financing.
After that, the path appeared to be a dead issue. "We just backed off it," said Robert Paternoster, city planning director. "There seemed to not be the council support for it, so we just went on to other things."
In June, Sloan and other supporters asked that the council again consider the bikeway, prompting Tuesday's public hearing.
Bud Crow, an advanced planning officer with the city, said there is $283,000 in state money to build the bike path, which has an estimated price tag of more than $1 million. It will take a two-thirds vote of the council to request the state funds, he said.
Other Funds Sought
In addition, city planning officials are asking the council for permission to seek other state or county money to help defray the cost of building the bikeway, Crow said.
If approved by the council, Crow said, it would probably take at least a year to find further funds and draw up plans and specifications for the bike path.
For Sloan and other supporters of the path, that would be none too soon.
Currently, there is no safe place to ride along the coast in Long Beach, he said. Ocean Boulevard has become "like a freeway" and is unsafe for bike riders, he said. In the meantime, police have begun more vigorously enforcing restrictions on bicycling along the sidewalks atop the seaside bluffs.
"We're not saying it's wrong to keep bicycles off the sidewalk, but there's no alternative for people on bikes," said Donna Holtz, another supporter.
Citizens Group Backing
Supporters of the bikeway recently gained what may be a valuable ally--the 500-member Beach Area Concerned Citizens.
The citizens group, which played an instrumental role during a fight to block high-rise construction along the coast during the 1970s, voted last week to support the bike path.
Luanne Pryor, president of the group, said the organization's backing will hinge on assurances from the City Council that the bike path would be relatively narrow, well maintained and adequately patrolled by police.