William Van Wyck has been coming to his Crystal Cove home for half a century, since his in-laws sold their place in Big Bear and leased the cabin on the isolated shore north of Laguna Beach.
He remembers when Irvine Ranch owner James Irvine Sr. would stroll around his beachfront property, stop and talk to Van Wyck and his other tenants.
Like Van Wyck, most of those now facing eviction from the picturesque cove have rented houses there for decades, long before they became part of a state park. The cottages are vacation getaways, to which folks come from Pasadena and Arcadia, even Utah, to spend weekends and summers listening to the ocean lap onshore.
Those days are coming to an end, because state parks officials have ordered residents of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove State Park to leave by April 1.
"They say the public is paying for the beaches and those houses, and you're getting preferential treatment," said Van Wyck, 83, who lives in Carlsbad. "Well, I think there's preferential treatment all over these United States."
Others take a more conciliatory view. "Fair is fair," said Homer Livermore, 79, a retired teacher at Glendale High who has had his Crystal Cove place since 1965. "We've enjoyed it so much. We're very fortunate. I think it's a beautiful place. It should be something for all the public to enjoy."
Joan Irvine Smith, granddaughter of James Irvine and heiress to the Irvine Ranch that once included Crystal Cove among its 125,000 acres, said squatters built the flimsy shacks that became today's cottages. Legend has it they were built with scraps from shipwrecks that floated ashore.
"You're talking about something that was scratched out with a mule and clamshells," said John Barnard, a retired Riverside County judge whose cabin was built by his wife's grandparents in 1930.
Because the Irvine Co. wasn't using the land, Smith said, instead of tossing out the squatters, her grandfather started charging them rent.
Others used Crystal Cove too. Until the mid-'60s, beginning on Memorial Day, people planted large tents on the beach and stayed all summer.
"The beach was wall-to-wall tents," Livermore recalled.
At one time, residents did buy the cottages and paid rent on the land. Livermore said he paid a little less than $5,000 for his cottage. But when the state bought the land in 1979, it also took title to the houses, residents said.
Some are tiny, beaten-up hovels with showers outside. Others have been converted from the original squatters' shacks to comfortable, two-story homes with garages, satellite dishes and hot tubs.
The ramshackle exteriors of some cottages often belie the modern decor inside. From the outside, a cottage, pockmarked from the salt air, may look as if the next storm will blow it away. Look inside, and there is a modern kitchen, a polished wood floor and furniture that goes well beyond beat-up beachcomber. Out back you might find an outdoor bar.
These houses have been passed down from generation to generation, and in some cases, it is the great-grandchildren of the original residents who gaze out their windows to watch the dolphins swim past. The cottages have been in the families so long that residents invariably use the word "own" when talking about them, although they all rent from the state.
"It's very dear to us," said Sara Shatford, whose family has rented its house for 44 years. "Everybody who has grown up there feels it's part of their background."
With the tenants gone, the state hopes to replace aging septic tanks, and to determine other infrastructure needs in Crystal Cove.
Still to be determined is what will happen to the cottages now that a plan to turn them into a luxury resort has been scotched.
The Crystal Cove Residents Assn. has put on hold its lawsuit to have the evictions declared illegal, and their attorney said they are willing to move if there is an acceptable plan for restoring the cottages, which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The state Department of Recreation and Parks continues to insist the tenants are out, unless legal action forestalls the move.
The recent events are just the latest skirmish between the Crystal Cove tenants and the state, a fight that began when the Irvine Co. sold the land to California for $32.5 million. The tenants have been threatened with eviction so many times, that it's almost life as usual. This time, though, they seem resigned that their time is coming to an end.
"They've been throwing us out for so many years, I assumed it was going to happen," said John T. McGraw, who has been coming to
Crystal Cove since his mother-in-law bought a house in 1940.
Others aren't so matter-of-fact.
"What am I going to do?" mourned one 76-year-old female resident who requested anonymity. "Die. My life is over."