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Naked Conflict

Beaches: Santa Barbara County is enforcing a nudity ban. But sunbathers and residents of one town wish police would go after those who come to look.

August 13, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUMMERLAND, Calif. — Jeffrey O'Neil doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

For years, nude sunbathers in this free-thinking coastal town have headed to a secluded beach below his cliff-top home to peel off their clothes and bake in the buff.

"It's kind of a low-key atmosphere," said O'Neil, 46, sitting naked and sporting a bronze all-over tan last week as he watched the waves roll into the sandy cove.

"A number of the local people use the beach both to sunbathe and walk," he added. "Everybody gets along real well. As far as I know, there are no complaints or problems."

Not so, say Santa Barbara County authorities, who have begun to enforce a 27-year-old law against public nudity after receiving complaints about lewd conduct on several beaches.

So far this year they have issued 149 citations--and 400 since last summer--to sun-seekers sans swimsuits, who face minimum fines of $50. Deputies have stepped up routine patrols along bluffs on Santa Barbara County's popular shores.

The crackdown has sparked protests among people who say the 1973 law is prudish and discriminatory.

But law enforcement officials say complaints about nudists--and the voyeurs they attract--justify an aggressive response at four beaches with reputations as being clothing-optional: Summerland, Rincon, More Mesa and Gaviota.

"I can guarantee you there are no clothing-optional beaches," said Mike Burridge, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. "This is a rumor and myth we have been working to dispel."

It is a rumor that has exploded on the Internet in recent years as various Web sites rate Santa Barbara County's isolated coves as top nudist destinations.

Some of those beaches have begun to attract exhibitionists and gain notoriety as pickup spots for people looking for casual sex, residents say. Sheriff's officials worry about increasing reports of lewd conduct and sexual assault.

Last year, such concerns prompted San Diego officials to crack down in enforcing a no-nudity law at Black's Beach in La Jolla, hailed on Web sites and travel guides as the nation's finest unofficial nude beach.

But residents in upscale Summerland, a tourist town dotted with pricey antique stores and pale-colored beach cottages, say those troubles have not marred their sun-kissed shores.

They contend that none of the complaints has been made in their laid-back community of 1,600, five miles south of Santa Barbara. And they worry that their unofficial nude beach will become more dangerous if locals who have traditionally policed the shore are shooed away.

"Our argument is, there is no complaint so why are you going after Summerland?" said O'Neil, a real estate developer who lives in the only house overlooking the cove. "Maybe we're getting a little bit of guilt by association."

But Burridge said the Sheriff's Department has received complaints from beachgoers at Summerland--although, he acknowledges, not as many as at other beaches.

Resident Anette Heaslet, 33, said the crackdown has had an unpleasant effect on the beach atmosphere.

"It used to feel like a real relaxing place where people enjoyed the beach," said Heaslet, who used to sunbathe topless there. "Now, it's like, 'Where are the police? When are they coming?' "

Earlier this month, a 24-year-old Santa Barbara resident got nabbed for dropping her purple bikini top while sunbathing with a friend at Summerland Beach.

"I felt it was discriminatory and kind of humiliating," said Korina Jochim, an arts writer for the weekly Santa Barbara Independent. "I knew I wanted to fight it right away."

Jochim contacted a local group, Top Freedom, that believes the law discriminates against women and needs to be changed. The group helped Jochim get a lawyer, who argued that point during an Aug. 2 court hearing. Jochim lost but is considering an appeal.

"I think this community can handle it," she said. "Most of the people here are pretty liberal-thinking."

It's the voyeurs that some residents would like to see the Sheriff's Department going after.

"I don't mind if families are down there nude, but I don't like the people lurking," said Rosemary Ramirez, 35, who works at Tinker's Burgers in the heart of town and often walks her dog on the beach.

"It kind of gives you a weird feeling," Ramirez said, "and that kind of ruins it for anyone who wants to use it."

None of this debate is stopping O'Neil.

He has been ticketed nearly 20 times and continues to openly defy the no-nudity law while soaking in the therapeutic powers of surf and sun at the cove by his home.

"I don't even own a bathing suit," he said.

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