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Town Is on Brink Over Trail at Sea's Edge

Nearly bankrupted by years of litigation, tiny Trinidad gave in to a resident's demand to close a coastal path. But the state said not so fast.

October 27, 2003|Hank Sims | Special to The Times

TRINIDAD, Calif. — The first thing John Frame sees when he stands behind his seaside home in Humboldt County is a sweeping vista of one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the state. It's a view that inspires painters and poets and would succor the most troubled heart.

The second thing he sees has been the bane of his existence for more than a decade -- a public trail that passes down his driveway and behind the two homes he owns on a side street in California's fourth-smallest city.

"You're sitting on your deck and people are walking so close by that they can reach up and touch you," he says.

The ire that the Wagner Street Trail provokes is not limited to Frame alone. The scenic 150-foot path has become the focal point of a rage felt by many of Trinidad's residents. Eleven years of litigation between Frame, a retired developer, and the city over the trail have driven the town, population 320, to the verge of bankruptcy and created an atmosphere of suspicion and despair.

Worse, when the city tried to throw in the towel by giving Frame nearly everything he had been asking for, including the trail's closure, it suddenly found itself facing an even more powerful antagonist -- the state of California.

In order to avoid bankruptcy due to litigation fees, the Trinidad City Council voted in August to reverse its long-standing policy of defending the trail and declared it a "public nuisance," paving the way for its abandonment. In a settlement agreement, the council also deeded the trail property to Frame. The city even erected barriers closing the trail.

But within days, the state attorney general intervened by suing the city, saying the agreement violated the state's interests. Though the land under the Wagner Street Trail was owned by the city, the California Coastal Conservancy owned an easement on it that allowed public access. The conservancy maintained that it had not been notified of the city's intention to declare the trail a public nuisance. A local judge agreed, ordering the city to reopen the trail.

That wasn't appreciated by many in the city, which after years of battling Frame is now standing with him in an attempt to defend the agreement.

"I sort of naively thought that if the city and John Frame reached an agreement, we were done," said Councilman Chi-Wei Lin.

Frame maintains that his concerns are not limited to the proximity of hikers to his home. He fears that public access along the trail, which is situated at the top of a steep coastal bluff, is causing the hill to collapse, which could undermine his house's foundation and damage a Native American archeological site underneath it. Frame alleges that the city and the state have done next to nothing to address these concerns.

For the California Coastal Commission, which joined the conservancy in its suit, the fight over the trail is just the latest in which wealthy homeowners have tried to block public access to a California beach. Last year, the commission beat back a lawsuit by media mogul David Geffen, who wanted to close a similar beach access point near his Malibu home. Bob Merrill, the commission's district manager, said last week that his agency has seen many similar cases in the past.

"Public access is at the center of a lot of legal disputes the commission has been involved with," Merrill said.

Since the city has been forced to reopen the trail, its settlement agreement with Frame is effectively voided, and Frame is promising to renew his lawsuits. Meanwhile, the city soon will no longer be able to pay its attorney. The city government has a general fund budget of only $200,000 per year, and its cash reserves have been nearly exhausted by legal fees, which have run between $40,000 and $50,000 annually in recent years.

The city's dire financial situation has some speaking of turning control of the town over to the county. Some members of the City Council hope to avert that with a sales-tax increase.

Others think that the city should look at selling some of the land it owns to private interests. But both sides concede that for either of those solutions to work, the Wagner Street Trail issue must be settled.

But whether or not it can, damage to political civility in the city has already been done.

At its most recent City Council meeting -- they are held only once a month -- Mayor Dean Heyenga was sharply rebuked by Lin when he brought forth a proposal to sell half an acre of city land in order to put the city back on its feet.

"You have been accused of acting like a king before," Lin said.

"I see the pattern now. You are manipulating, using the opportunities you have to get what you want."

Heyenga responded with a sigh. "Let's beat up on the mayor," he said.

The descent of council meetings into sessions of trash-talking further decreases the chances that a solution to the crisis can be found, and leads longtime residents like Jim Cuthbertson to despair of his city.

"It's all gone to hell," Cuthbertson said.

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