Coastal commission should re-evaluate Ontario Ridge plan

April 25, 2013 

Hikers make their way along a steep section of Ontario Ridge Trail near Pirates Cove in April 2013.


The Sunday, April 14, Tribune included a front-page article on the idea of establishing a public trail on private property that would run between the ridgetop trail known as Ontario Ridge to the (future) Pirates Cove parking lot and trails planned by the county along the lower blufftop. The owners of this property, Rob and Judi McCarthy, support this trail but advocate it being done in a safe manner.

In 2010, the McCarthys applied for a permit to build their home on a 37-acre parcel. The home would be located more than 500 feet inland of Cave Landing Road and the dirt parking at Pirates Cove. The latter area is slated for a paved parking lot, trails and public restroom by the county.

The McCarthys’ plans were approved by the county in 2011. Following that, the Coastal Commission appealed the approval and began a process of analyzing the size and placement of the home. After 16 months of discussions with coastal staff, countless photographs and visual simulations, revised plans and the development of conditions of approval, the appeal hearing was scheduled for January of this year.

At the 11th hour, the night before the Jan. 10 coastal hearing, an addendum was developed asking the McCarthys not to oppose public access on their land, in exchange for their permit. This was a strangely worded request, asking “not to oppose” access. The commission’s normal modus operandi is to impose conditions to get what it wants. We came to learn at the Jan. 10 hearing that the commission could not legally impose access, only request it.

Nevertheless, the McCarthys agreed to provide the ridgetop trail and offered to create a path from Cave Landing to the ridge. A safer path up the hill would include gentler access with switchbacks across either an adjoining county parcel or on private lands to the west. The existing “trail” (actually a utility road easement for emergency responders and communications equipment) approaches a 50 percent slope, and is unsafe. We have designed two alternate trails that average 12 percent to 20 percent inclines, which represent less of a risk to hikers.

This background is important because the question over access was never raised during 16 months of discussions about the house. Had this idea been raised, a thoughtful discussion could have evolved.

The McCarthys support access; they simply (perhaps mistakenly?) advocate it be safe and useful for the largest number of people. I use the word “mistakenly” because while the commission couldn’t legally demand access in January, it nonetheless cited lack of access when it denied the McCarthys’ permit.

Now, in the aftermath of this sequence, the commission has begun a process of taking the access it couldn’t legally extract in January. In spite of the McCarthys’ willingness to design, construct and dedicate a safer access than what was requested, the commission’s path will subject all of us, as California citizens, to pay for the coastal staff, Attorney General and lawyers to spend money studying, suing and taking access in a decidedly inferior location. But the cost won’t stop there. If successful in establishing “prescriptive rights” for access, the state would then need to design and fund construction of this 50 percent slope pathway.

For all our financial (if not logical) benefit, the commission should slow down and set its sights on doing the right thing: carefully studying the safest (and least costly) way to establish access at Ontario Ridge and Pirates Cove. The McCarthys are willing to be part of a solution.

Dave Watson is a planning and development consultant who has lived and worked on the Central Coast for nearly 40 years. He can be reached at dave@watson

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