Should Beach Access Always Be Free?

Santa Cruz's "Privates" and the politics of public access

Photo: Chachi
Keep Privates private? The answer’s not so simple. Photo: Chachi

God help me. I’m about to argue that sometimes beach access fees might not be a bad thing.

Since the 1940s, there has been a locked gate fronting Opal Cliffs Beach, often called “Privates,” a small Santa Cruz beach just east of The Hook, with a soft, longboard-friendly point/reef wave out front, and a delightful cove with the occasional sunning nudist on the sand. If the Hook is too crowded (it always is) and Pleasure Point is too Pleasure-Pointy, Opal Cliffs is just a short-ish paddle away. Unless, of course, you’ve purchased a key(card) to the gate. $100 to a local surf shop, and that little bit of exclusivity-granting rectangular plastic could be yours. This wasn’t buying you a whole lot, necessarily, besides a clean park at the top of the cliffs and a nice stairway to the beach, because you can always paddle into the Opal Cliffs zone, or walk into the cove on the lowest of tides. Still, it’s a clean, relatively pristine and uncrowded beach in the middle of what is very much a busy suburban beach town. A little bit of elbow room is greatly appreciated by the locals who’ve bought a key, and the paddle into the place has kept the lineup at least a body or two less crowded than neighboring breaks.

But last month, the California Coastal Commission told the Opal Cliffs Recreation District (OCRD), the group that controls access to the gate, to remove it and allow public access, or face unpleasant fines. As of now, the gate remains closed to any without a key, and a small scale legal battle has ensued.

Legalities aside, the expected arguments roil. A local sheriff who lives in the area wrote a letter to the CCC supporting the fence, stating that increased traffic will mean crime and lower property values. The CCC and their supporters—not to mention the California Coastal Act—cry out for public access to all beaches in California.

So who’s right here?

I’ve written before that public access can be a thorny issue, often without simple answers. It’s easy to stomp your feet and demand that beaches be free and open to all with no strings attached, until you’ve spent time at some of the last unspoiled beaches left in busy urban areas. The Ranch, of course, is the poster child for this dilemma, though it seems that controversy has been reduced to a low simmer over the past couple of decades. As surfers, we celebrate the idea that beaches are public treasures and that they be open for all of us to share. Unless it comes to our beach and our waves, in which case, we’d just as soon keep the masses out, thank you very much. We’re some of the original NIMBYs (look it up).

These kinds of public vs private beach-access battles pop up all over the state, whenever desirable beaches meet desirable real estate, with owners motivated enough to try and reclaim the sand as their own. How do you reconcile, for example, believing that opening the Ranch to all comers is the right thing to do, even while knowing that to do so would increase congestion and pollution at one of Southern California’s last relatively un-ruined coastal areas? Think you’ve got an obvious argument to make there? Go ahead, I’d love to hear it.

It’s easy to imagine the battle over Privates as CCC—champion of the little guy—vs. the OCRD—elitist snobs, thumbing their noses at the Coastal Act and people who don’t want to pony up the money for a key card. But I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. The OCRD has managed the Opal Cliffs beach park long before the CCC even existed. The gate and fee program was approved by the CCC twice, in 1981 and in 1991, so it’s a bit strange that, all of a sudden, the CCC has changed its mind about whether or not the gate at Opal Cliffs violates the Coastal Act. Plus, the OCRD has offered to alter their program, allowing a daily access fee for those who don’t want to pay for an annual key card.

The CCC has been the subject of increased scrutiny since their public sacking of cherished executive director Charles Lester this spring, so could this be a bit of an attempt to save face by appearing to be the hero of public beach access? No idea if that organization is actually so cynical, but after the debacle of Lester’s firing, it’s an easy thing to imagine.

But it’s hard to fault the OCRD here. They’re a dedicated group of locals committed to protecting their beach by charging a fee that goes toward beach and park maintenance, and which tones down crowding, both making the beach a little more pleasant, and a whole lot cleaner. And they’re not saying that you can’t come in—they just insist that if you’re going to use the beach, you ought to have a stake in keeping it maintained. How’s that different than paying for beach access at State Beaches? And who among us doesn’t look out at our own homebreaks on a crowded day and mentally wish away a couple dozen bodies from the lineup?

As a lifelong Northern/Central Californian, where 99.99% of beaches are accessible and free, I tend to view beach access fees as an abomination of nature. But I happily pony up access fees at Yosemite, Sequoia Kings Canyon, and other national and state parks when I head to the wilderness. Why should a beach be any different?

I don’t have a good answer. Or maybe I do and it’s this: Access fees for unique beaches worth protecting aren’t such a bad thing after all.


Photo: Chachi
Paid access to preserved beaches like Opal Cliffs isn’t theoretically much different than paid access to our state and national parks. Photo: Chachi

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