Once they started, the waves that thrashed the coast of Santa Cruz County during the winter of 2016—one of the most extreme El Niño seasons on record—didn’t stop. Huge swells crashed into the shores of the Monterey Bay, pulling tons of sand back out to sea, and a 40-foot sinkhole opened near New Brighton State Beach. In South County, beaches eroded an average of 150 feet.
A year later, it sounded like a bad stoner joke when meteorologists warned that Santa Cruz was once again in line to be hit by a series of “Pineapple Express” storms moving east from Hawaii. Heavy rains were welcomed after severe drought, but then everything came unglued again. At Rio del Mar, parts of the cement ship once used as a Prohibition-era casino were ripped off in rough surf. Roads wiped out by mudslides cost the county tens of millions of dollars.
“Greetings from beautiful Santa Cruz County!” local officials wrote on postcards with photos of collapsed pavement and cars eaten by sinkholes, which they sent to Sacramento to lobby for disaster dollars.
As crews worked overtime to keep major arteries like Highway 17 open, a much smaller local thoroughfare quietly fell into disrepair. High surf swept out the base of a staircase that had long led surfers, fishermen and other beachgoers down to the sand at Manresa State Beach. The stairs themselves weren’t much to look at, just rough cement, but the sweeping views of white sand, turquoise waves and lush greenery that lined the path to the beach seemed like something from another time.
The stairs are perched on a bluff at the end of Oceanview Drive, just off San Andreas Road in the part of South County where the big houses of La Selva Beach begin to bleed into the vast agricultural fields of Watsonville. During the summer of 2017, those who knew the stairs mostly steered clear of the sketchy sections hit by the storm, and found their way down the way they always had.
“I’ve been using that area for more than 40 years,” says Mike Watson, a Santa Cruz resident and board member of the Santa Cruz Longboard Union, who grew up in Aptos. “That’s where I learned to surf.”
It was around October 2017 when Watson and others discovered that the barbed-wire gate at the top of the stairs had been locked. “Temporary closure of the public access stairway to the public beach,” read the 60-day county permit posted outside.
A year and a half later, the stairway at Oceanview Drive is still closed, making it one of many coastal access points in Santa Cruz County stuck in limbo at a time when coastal real estate is more cutthroat than ever. In some cases, private owners have deliberately blocked public access. In others, government agencies contending with lower budgets and a backlog of infrastructure repairs have been slow to make repairs. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both.
After years-long legal battles, gated access points at Opal Cliffs and Rio del Mar’s Beach Island have recently been re-opened to the public—for now. From a former nude beach in Davenport to secluded coves in Pleasure Point, Live Oak and Aptos to other stretches of South County near Manresa and Sunset state parks, more isolated disputes have also bubbled up.
“There’s a lot at stake. You’re talking about a strip of real estate that’s really important to a lot of people,” says Dan Carl, a Santa Cruz native who now runs the Central and North Central Coast districts for the California Coastal Commission. “It’s just ratcheted up.”
The politics of beach access are also changing. In recent years, local and state officials have gained more power to levy annual fees or fines for non-compliance with access laws. Just up the coast at Martin’s Beach, near Half Moon Bay, the case of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s attempt to privatize the beach near his $32.5 million property was argued all the way up to the Supreme Court last year—Khosla felt “coerced and extorted” by the ordeal, he wrote in a blog post—before a tenuous deal to allow surfers back in.
On busy days at Oceanview Drive, two dozen cars or more in would pack the dirt shoulder of the road wedged between a gated community and a Spanish-style mansion. Smashed windows had always been a risk in the secluded area, but finding a spot meant that groups toting surfboards, coolers and tents didn’t have to pay the $10 parking fee at the lot down the street for Manresa State Beach.
Whether that option will exist this summer—or even sorting out who has the right to make that call—are questions with ripple effects far beyond one staircase.
“That’s what towns like this are about, you know? For people to be able to walk to the beach,” says Jeff Gaffney, a Gilroy native who oversees Santa Cruz County’s parks department and grew up visiting his grandparents in town. “That’s what we all want. That’s why we live here.”
CLAIMING THE COAST
For much of recorded history, the beaches of present-day Santa Cruz County were an afterthought for generations of residents more concerned with hunting, ranching and staking claim to fertile ground farther inland.
The Ohlone used to burn old growth from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the edge of the Monterey Bay each year to grow grass and attract deer, according to John Hibble of the Aptos History Museum. When Sebastian Viscaino stumbled ashore and claimed the Central Coast for Spain in 1602, he set in motion a period of brutal colonization that revolved more around inland mission-building than the pristine waters the conquistadors sailed in on.
It wasn’t until the 1800s, when California was still part of Mexico, that people even started to divvy up beachfront property, according to local historian Allen Collins in his book Rio del Mar: A Sedate Residential Community. Property records didn’t exist, and land squatting was the norm.
“Understandably,” Collins writes, “there would be conflicts down the road.”
The first real estate heavyweight in what is now Santa Cruz County was the family of Mexican general-turned-cattle-rancher Don Rafael de Jesus Castro, who in the 1830s received land grants from the Mexican government for more than 20,000 acres stretching from today’s Capitola to Sunset State Beach. Castro finally put the beach to use in 1850, when he built a 500-foot wharf to ship livestock, hides and grain as part of a booming Mexican-American trade network that also involved private wharfs in Watsonville, Santa Cruz and other nearby towns.
It’s only fitting that a California divorce between Don Castro and his wife would set in motion the subdividing of coastal land that still makes it hard to determine who has rights to what today.
“People think the beaches are all public, and they really aren’t,” Carl says. “If it’s not a state park in this area, it’s likely to be privately owned beach that is used by the public.”
Under the modern system of beach access overseen by the Coastal Commission, and frequently fought in court, public access is established by a track record of people using a path or stairway or section of beach—a standard known in planning jargon as “prescriptive rights.” In uncontested areas, routes to the water often ebb and flow with little formal documentation. If there’s a dispute, landowners or citizens can sue to sort out public access for a specific location.
But none of those concepts existed when Santa Cruz County really started to develop.
Claus “The Sugar King” Spreckles was among the first to seize the opportunity to develop the Central Coast in the 1870s. An industrialist who amassed much of his wealth from the Hawaiian sugar trade, Spreckles bought Castro’s Rancho Aptos and built a luxurious hotel in present-day Rio del Mar, then fenced off the beach for guests. After he moved his dominion inland, near the beet sugar plant he built in a Monterey County town given the name Spreckles, the coastal land was sold to developers who started planning single-family homes, beach clubs, polo fields and a general Prohibition-era playground.
“It all started in the early ’20s. This was a time for people to have second homes, visit the beach, get liquor—you know, party hardy,” says Hibble. “In Rio del Mar, the idea was to make it so exclusive that the only way you could use the beach was to be a member.”
The Great Depression and World War II stunted the original plans to develop the rest of the coast, but the rush to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s filled out the area with more housing. Some swaths of land were dedicated back to the government by private owners, and there would be flare ups like the battle over the Seascape resort, but the end result was a patchwork of property rights and dated surveying that can make it difficult to answer what may seem like black and white questions about access.
“This used to all be chicken coops and ag land, and people could walk literally down through some orchard and be at the beach,” Gaffney says. “Progress or development or whatever you want to call it over the last 60 years has really changed the way we do beach access.”
Part of what’s changed, Carl says, is more glaring tension between the state Coastal Act that calls for “maximum access” and homeowners now paying much higher prices for private estates along the coast. With property on the sand or the bluffs of Santa Cruz County routinely trading in the millions of dollars, public access can become a nuisance.
“That’s their private Shangri-La,” Carl says. “They don’t wanna see the unwashed masses near their Shangri-La.”
DO NOT ENTER
In 35 years, Watsonville native Felix Alfaro doesn’t remember a time when the stairs at Oceanview Drive have been blocked off like they are today.
“Have you seen the fence?” Alfaro asks as he finishes a fix on a weathered teal surfboard at his Sand Dollar Quality Surfboard Repair business across the street.
It was early this year, months after the emergency county permit posted at the top of the stairs was set to expire, that a black iron fence was installed. The change was made after a chain link fence was repeatedly cut and wired back shut last year. Weaving in and out of both fences is a chaotic graveyard of padlocks, cables, wires and signs that blare warnings like “Stairs Closed,” “No Trespassing” and “Danger Do Not Enter.”
Exactly how it all got there—or who sliced, patched and repatched the fence—is unclear. Who should decide whether it gets dismantled and re-opened to the public depends on who you ask.
“I’m now very interested in us figuring out how we can open that up, and what we need to do to get it there,” Gaffney says. “If the land is owned by individuals or private property owners, that still doesn’t change the fact that there was a public easement there.”
“There is not a county easement on that property,” says William Hansen, the local businessman who owns the 7,100-square-foot beachfront lot last sold in 2009. He thinks it could be a prime location for a single-family home. “It’s inventory,” Hansen says. “We’re developers.”
The most likely answer, property records show, is some combination of both public easements and private property—a fairly common predicament that is usually resolved through either negotiations or the court system.
“Talk about peeling the onion,” Carl says. “You’d really have to get into it to figure out all the stuff for that place.”
Originally part of the plans for a neighboring gated community called Place de Mer, a 1963 map on file with the County Assessor’s office shows at least one county easement just off Oceanview Drive and 5 feet “reserved for path,” but the map only shows a corner of the property. Hansen says it’s “a complex discussion,” but he contends that the county only has rights to a pump at the top of the stairs. Both the county’s parks and public works departments say that part of the staircase and a drain pipe underneath traverse private property, but the path appears to have long been a public access point. The Coastal Commission’s website also lists the staircase and “informal” parking on its access page.
Watson, who in addition to being a regular at the South County surf spot is also a planner for the Coastal Commission, says the area is one of many in the county where he’s seen gradual restrictions put on parking or paths to the beach.
“It seems that, you know, over time the ability to access the coast has slowly been eroding—no pun intended,” Watson says.
The stairs at Oceanview Drive have also been disputed before. About 15 years ago, Carl says the Coastal Commission blocked an attempt by nearby homeowners who have at times maintained the stairs to secure a permit to close the path to the public. More recently, around 2012, the five-bedroom mansion with a lap pool on the lot next door was listed for sale at $9.75 million and advertised as “completely fenced and private with private beach path.”
Today, the sliver of beachfront land that includes the staircase is one of many lots or buildings owned in Watsonville by Hansen, who is the chairman of the board of Santa Cruz County Bank, and runs both Hansen Insurance and a real estate firm called Pacific Coast Development. He says that Oceanview Drive is “a great location” for a house, and that people who relied on the stairs for access are “just kind of evading the fact that the park system charges for parking” down the street at the official lot for Manresa State Beach.
“Obviously it has to be a situation where you protect the property rights,” Hansen says. “It’s really disruptive to that whole residential community.”
Watson contends that the path helps ease crowding at surf breaks along the coast, especially since other public staircases like the nearby Manresa Uplands Campground have also been washed out by storms.
“It’s a super important access spot for surfers and beachgoers alike,” Watson says. “It’s overflow parking, essentially, for Manresa.”
On a recent road trip to Southern California, Alfaro says he was struck by the number of barricades up and down the coast.
“Access is a funny thing,” Alfaro says. “The business to be in is fences.”
Private security guards. Fake no parking signs. In the case of music mogul David Geffen, efforts to block public access to a stretch of Malibu coastline nicknamed “Billionaires’ Beach” included building an elaborate fake garage to discourage people from parking in front of his property.
“People just do outrageous things to block public access,” says Pat Veesart, who oversees enforcement for the Coastal Commission in Northern California. “I’ve caught people out there painting their curbs red. Up and down the coast, there are people who just can’t accept that the coast has special status in California.”
Most coastal observers agree that Santa Cruz’s access issues aren’t as severe as Southern California’s wealthiest enclaves, but they also aren’t taking any chances. In recent years, the Coastal Commission was authorized to levy new administrative penalties up to $11,250 per violation, per day, which have already been used locally—or at least threatened.
In December, county officials demolished a fence and 6-foot wall blocking off an esplanade outside 29 waterfront homes in Rio del Mar known as “Beach Island” after violation notices were sent to all 29 property owners. The Rio Del Mar Beach Island Homeowners Association sued the county in November, arguing that there is not a public easement on the property, and that the government had not previously shown an interest in maintaining the area.
“We got their attention with these notification-of-violation letters,” Veesart says of the case, which is still working its way through the courts. “We entered into negotiations with them and their attorneys … We’ll see where that goes.”
Though property lines for houses built on the waterfront often technically extend out on the beach to the high-tide mark, Carl says that it’s usually routes down to the beach that are more contested than what happens on the sand.
Take the case of Privates beach, the Opal Cliffs park and surf break where residents have since the ’60s charged up to $100 a year for a key, and paid for a gate attendant to police access. For years, residents argued that paid access should be allowed because of better maintenance made possible by fees. A judge last year ordered the gate open after the county and the Coastal Commission challenged the permitting of the 9-foot fence, and homeowners are now due to submit a plan for long-term free access and a smaller fence.
“In the case of Opal Cliffs, it’s the only access way where the public’s charged a fee to access the beach in the state,” Carl says. “So it’s a big deal.”
At the county, Gaffney has also spearheaded a new “coastal encroachment” permit program approved by the Board of Supervisors last June. In response to complaints about public parking and access being curtailed on streets that lead to the water, the county will now charge homeowners whose landscaping, mailboxes or other property stretch into the public right of way an application cost of $1,080, plus an “annual exclusive encroachment fee” of $16.50 per square foot or a “non-exclusive encroachment fee” of $6.50 per foot, capped at $5,000 per property per year.
Revenue generated by the new permits will be allocated for maintaining coastal areas. The county is implementing the program through “passive” enforcement, Gaffney says, which means that homeowners are asked to apply if they believe their properties are in violation.
“We don’t want people to feel like they’re criminals,” Gaffney says. “We want them to come forward.”
As April turned to May, the signs of struggle in the mangled fence at Oceanview Drive were obscured by knee-high weeds and wildflowers. At the base of the stairs, near a red danger sign, a broken window sat in the ice plants just above the sand, and trash like a surgical mask could be seen off the overgrown walkway. Stickers with surf shop logos or sayings like “Good Vibes Only” had started to fade on nearby signs and railings.
After questions from GT, the county says that they plan to reopen the stairs by as soon as this summer, after repairs projected to cost $50,000-100,000 are made to drainage infrastructure.
“My goal would be to have all that communication as far as permits and property access completed over the next month,” says Steve Wiesner, the county’s assistant director of public works for roads and transportation. “The repairs would begin to be implemented within the next 4-6 weeks, and then we would be complete early summer.”
Hansen, however, says he hasn’t been approached about reopening the stairs.
“No comment,” he says when asked about the prospect. He adds, “It’s amazing how people like to put up their different signs and feel that somehow establishes some type of legal residence … somehow you’re going to reflect some type of access. It’s kind of comical.”
While pitched battles over development are nothing new in coastal California, there’s also the matter of how Mother Nature might play into the debate.
“Access ways disappear for a lot of reasons,” Carl says. “One of the more important reasons is because they’re right at the coast, where it’s inherently dangerous.”
Henry Bose and his neighbors at the Cañon del Sol subdivision on the edge of Manresa State Beach have found themselves caught in the middle of such a situation. Just a few hundred yards down the beach from the stairs at Oceanview Drive, the public wooden stairs that once led down to the beach near the Manresa Uplands Campground have been closed since a large section was destroyed in the storms of 2016.
With no re-open date given by local or state officials, Bose and his neighbors are considering a GoFundMe campaign to raise donations. While he knows that easy beach access is a nice selling point for homeowners, Bose says he’s more concerned about public access.
“Obviously I would have to recuse myself because it is of interest to me and my property value,” says Bose, a former real estate lawyer who retired to the area to be close to some of his 17 grandchildren. “But if you believe in California beaches being open to the public, this is a spot that was developed just for that.”
After years of budget cuts, state and county agencies are currently seeking funding from FEMA and many other sources to address a backlog of coastal maintenance estimated at $30-40 million in Santa Cruz County alone, Gaffney says.
“As every day goes by, things are costing more,” Gaffney says, due to limited local contractors willing to navigate coastal red tape. “Even numbers that we were using last year have gone up by 20%.”
And that’s if the climate cooperates. Scientists who study the coast also warn that a combination of more frequent strong storms and sea-level rise could add to the bottleneck.
“Because of the urban infrastructure pinning the location of the beaches, we’re going to lose 50% of the beaches,” says Patrick Barnard, a Santa Cruz-based coastal geologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey. “These beach access issues are going to become more and more complicated.”