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Laguna Laws Ruining Their Beach Party

Residents who have gathered at a cove for two decades are seeking a small exception to alcohol prohibition.

September 15, 2006|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

For years, cities the length of California have banned booze at the beach. Even the seashore in Laguna Beach -- a town with a rebel spirit -- long ago joined the prohibition and went dry.

But now an unlikely group of residents is fighting, or gently arguing, for the right to party. Not unruly kids, not civil libertarians, but a polite collection of mostly retired men and women asking permission to hold their own happy hour every Friday in an isolated cove in Laguna Beach.

The battle ahead looks tough. The City Council heard their petition Tuesday night and promptly shelved it.

"We are not a raucous group of teenagers," said Otis Healy, the 79-year-old spearheading the effort. "At 7:30, most of us go home, have a glass of Ovaltine and go to bed."

Healy and others have been meeting at Shaw's Cove for more than 20 years. The get-togethers range from four to 20 people and often involve covert consumption, increasingly busted up by police. Their request for permission to drink Fridays from 5 to 7:30 p.m. reflects a desire to come out of the shadows and imbibe openly.

"You can go to a park and have a meal and drink alcoholic beverages, but you move 25 feet to the beach and you can't," said Healy, who plans to submit another proposal to the council. "We asked to be allowed to do this on a trial basis. We wouldn't use glass or Styrofoam or make any fires. If there were any problems, the city could cancel. We are beach people; we like to get our feet wet."

City officials fear a slippery slope.

"What I heard the council say is that there is great concern about having alcohol on the beach because it creates dangerous situations," said Mayor Steve Dicterow. "Everyone will want to drink on the beach, and they will ask why these people can and they can't. A lot of work will have to be done before the proposal comes back to us. We may just not allow it, like we don't allow it today."

City Manager Kenneth C. Frank also has his doubts.

"I'm not optimistic any proposal will fly," he said. "We currently prohibit alcohol consumption on the beach, like most towns, and the majority of the council agrees. I can't think of an alternative to the proposal that will pass muster."

Hidden at the bottom of a lush trail, Shaw's Cove is a blue crescent of ocean surrounded by cliffs studded with palms and eucalyptus. Large homes look down on tide pools, white water and rock.

Residents differ on whether limited drinking would lead to problems.

"I'm in favor of a two-hour period per week for the locals. I don't see any harm in that," said Jim Levin, 55, a veterinarian who lives near Shaw's Cove. "I see them down here. They are a harmless group of people playing cards and having a drink."

Down the beach, David Golden, 71, stood in his wetsuit.

"They better not go diving after they drink, I tell you that," he declared.

As Melissa Belland walked her dog on the sand, she said she understood the urge to drink on the beach and pointed out that many people did it anyway. Still, legalizing it made her uneasy.

"Surf, kids, alcohol and cars don't mix," said the 40-year-old artist. "I'd be open to being persuaded. A lot could go right, but I worry what would go wrong."

Richard Yamato, 69, who owns a time-share nearby, was also reluctant.

"I have to think it will lead to more problems," he said. "The younger set will take advantage."

For some, the council's shelving of the plan reflects a growing conservatism in a once-Bohemian town where the median home price is now $1.5 million, the gay population is dwindling and wealthier families are moving in.

"Laguna has always been known for its hippies and alternative lifestyles," said 51-year-old Craig Keding, as he walked near Fisherman's Cove, just around the bend from Shaw's Cove. "I think it has now become more family-oriented. Traditional families have always been here; it just wasn't cool to talk about it before."

Healy agrees.

"The town has become more conservative," he said. "I think that is in response to problems caused by people coming here from out of town."

His effort has gained at least one robust supporter.

"I think it's a very reasonable request," said 40-year-old Roger Stockton, working construction near the cove. "The old people should be allowed to get hammered and party on if they want to."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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