Stella Hiatt marked her last morning at Crystal Cove State Park with a quiet--and sad--ceremony.
About 8:30 a.m., Hiatt and 22 friends swam out into the surf with a small raft covered with roses, then released the flowers, a few at a time, to drift out to sea. The ceremony took on the air of a funeral as the swimmers said goodbye to a way of life they fought hard to keep, but in the end had to let go.
As for her grief, "I don't think I'll ever be through," said Hiatt, 77, who maintained a cottage at the state beach for 23 years. "This is the most special place in the world."
Not even a gentle ocean breeze could lift the sense of gloom that settled over the park's historic beach cottages Sunday as residents faced a 5 p.m. eviction deadline. Instead, the perfect weather, with the surf pounding just yards from cottage decks and the lingering beach smells, posed insistent reminders of all the residents were forced to leave.
The state Department of Parks and Recreation has been trying to get the residents to vacate the 46 cottages since the agency bought the property in 1979.
Residents built the cottages on land rented from the Irvine Co. When the state bought the property for $32.5 million, it began looking to oust the residents even while charging them rent.
Residents managed to outlast four governors but the eviction notices were finally delivered this spring.
Most of the cottages were stripped by late Sunday morning. Three oversize trash bins overflowed with mattresses, couches, cushions, file cabinets and other odds and ends.
State parks officials want to improve public access to the state park, including the cottages, but a specific plan is still undecided. The uncertainty of those plans, Hiatt said, will draw her back. "The reason I'm coming back is to make sure the state protects these cottages," Hiatt said. "If they screw up, there will be a public outcry."
As the residents moved out, state park rangers stood by, preparing to take control of the wood-frame buildings. Many of the structures may be boarded up to stymie vandals.
Bruce Hostetter of the Crystal Cove Community Trust, which failed to get an emergency court injunction to halt the evictions, hopes the residents still might find a way to get back into the cottages or to participate in planning their future.
However, Nancy Killen is not interested in returning unless she can stay.
"The people won't be here. The houses will all be boarded up," she said. "It won't be the same."
The sadness reaches across generations. Killen said her daughter is upset because she wanted her 10-month-old son to grow up at Crystal Cove "just like she did."