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Promised stairs to the sea are not all built

Coastal panel learns that in Orange and San Diego counties, 25% exist only on paper or are not open to the public.

December 11, 2009|By Tony Barboza
  • A man and his macaw take in the view from the long wooden stairway and ramp leading from the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach to the sand below. The California Coastal Commission has found that in Orange and San Diego counties, some of the required staircases to the sea have not been built by developers.
A man and his macaw take in the view from the long wooden stairway and ramp… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Kelly and Jake Thomason, 30-year-old scuba divers from Laguna Niguel who often descend long stairways for forays into Laguna Beach's waters, took the 89 steps from Victoria Drive down to a secluded beach surrounded by picturesque bluffs and homes to be photographed with their Pomeranian for a Christmas card.

"Without this we would die," Kelly said as the couple made their way toward the sand, a photographer close behind.

Narrow stairways and walkways such as those at Victoria Beach are often the only way for the public to get from the road, between houses and hotels and down to the beach.

But there are not as many of the passageways as there should be.

A little more than one-quarter of the beach access ways -- stairs, walkways and viewing areas -- developers have agreed to build in Orange and San Diego counties do not exist or have not been fully opened to the public, according to a report the state Coastal Commission heard this week at a meeting in San Francisco.

The report is the first part of a comprehensive review by the agency to determine how many of the 231 beach stairways the state has required to be built since 1973 exist only on paper.

Next up for review is Los Angeles County, where the most contentious disputes over the public's access to the beach have centered in Malibu.

When the Coastal Commission approves beachfront projects, it often imposes conditions: that the developer add a walkway, a boat ramp or sometimes just a viewpoint where visitors can enjoy looking at the water.

The state-mandated access ways are among 1,180 passages to the coast statewide; they include stairways in state parks and those under city jurisdiction that lead to beaches from the ends of streets.

State officials say stairways are increasingly vital routes to the coast as hotels, condos, houses and other developments crowd the shore, becoming obstacles to visitors.

One would-be stairway to a small beach in Laguna Beach just isn't there, even though it has been on the books since 1991.

"There's nothing there. There's just a house on the bluff top," said Linda Locklin, the commission's coastal access program manager and the author of the report. "Why isn't that one built?"

At least one commissioner said the report shows insufficient progress.

"It looks like it's not enough access," said Santa Monica Councilman Richard Bloom, a newly appointed member of the commission.

Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper, a Costa Mesa nonprofit that manages two public walkways in Huntington Harbour, said the report raised concerns that developers have been getting away with not building the pathways they've promised.

"If everything has been completed but the public access doesn't exist, that's certainly something that we would be concerned about," he said.

But a disclosure like this, he added, could spur action, opening up new paths to the coast or improving existing ones.

There is already at least one sign that it may.

After reading the report, Orange County's parks department told the Coastal Commission it may expand the Laguna Beach Thousand Steps stairway -- it's actually just over 200 steps -- to make it 5 feet wider.

In La Jolla, Encinitas, Laguna Beach and other areas, sometimes the only way for visitors to reach rugged and isolated coves is by descending long staircases.

Erich Volk, 66, a retired Laguna Beach marketing professional who walked his boxer, Bo, down the staircase to Victoria Beach this week, said there still aren't enough ways to get to the sand.

"Some beaches I don't think you can get to at all," he said. "They've just become private beaches."

Visitors savor the stairways.

Richard Difley, 64, an electrician from Mission Viejo, took advantage of the Cleo Street staircase, spending his afternoon break sitting on the steps, admiring the glimmering blue water and munching on a gingersnap.

"There's not a lot of beach access," he said.

But he's been visiting this conduit to the coast for nearly 40 years, often taking early morning walks with his wife.

"We just enjoy the openness. That means everything to me," he said. "Now, if only I could find parking."

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