A Morro Bay family can keep their beachfront home, a judge ruled, rejecting a suit brought by an environmental group that wanted them to remove the home and replace an original beach access trail.
Judge Charles Crandall’s decision this week brings to a close an 18-month legal battle over Greg and Jeanne Frye’s property on the 3400 block of Toro Lane near Morro Strand State Beach.
“We believe the owners of a residential lot like ours have the right to build on land we purchased,” Greg Frye said.
The nonprofit Save the Park filed a lawsuit against the Fryes on Feb. 5, 2016. They argued the public should hold rights to a long-established public-access beach trail that ran through the middle of the formerly vacant property.
Save the Park — whose president is former Morro Bay councilwoman Betty Winholtz — contended that the Fryes’ replacement trail was inadequate. The Fryes built the new trail on the side of their new 1,600-square-foot home and garage on the quarter-acre parcel.
Whether it is better than the original trail is debatable, but that is not the appropriate question to ask.
Judge Charles Crandall
A four-day trial was held in July.
In his decision, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall ruled that “there is no equitable or legal reason for the Court to tamper with the newly-established coastal access route. Whether it is better than the original trail is debatable, but that is not the appropriate question to ask.”
Crandall wrote that the Fryes reasonably preserved coastal access, working with the Coastal Commission as they designed and engineered the replacement trail. They received formal approval from the Morro Bay Planning Commission and City Council to build the new pathway, fortifying an adjacent creek bank and installing posts and rope for pedestrian safety.
Frye estimates the family has spent about $100,000 on legal fees defending the project. They can’t recoup that money because Save the Park filed the lawsuit on behalf of the public.
“I’m amazed that this would even go to a lawsuit,” he said. “We’ve tried to work through it. We’ve tried to make it a positive all the way around.”
The only way to recoup the fees would be to file a separate action for malicious prosecution, and the family wants to move on with their lives, said Michael McMahon, the Fryes’ attorney.
We believe the owners of a residential lot like ours have the right to build on land we purchased.
Greg Frye, Morro Bay property owner
Cynthia Hawley, the lawyer representing Save the Park, said the nonprofit fought to keep trail access in the public’s hands, fearing the Fryes won’t maintain the replacement trail. The “trail on the bluff is not going to last,” Hawley said, adding that it’s unsafe and “anyone could tumble over it.”
Other nearby coastal access pathways exist, including entry points bordering free public parking areas. But Hawley argued the Fryes’ property offered the most gentle incline and safest access for those who are elderly or have a disability.
The Fryes counter the new trail offers safe access. The Fryes have offered the trail to the city as a dedicated easement, which the city has accepted, Greg Frye said.
“There is no lack of trails or accessibility,” Frye said in an email. “Any claim that the ‘old trail was the only trail that allowed for children, wheeled devices, the elderly or those with mobility problems’ is simply false. It remained for Save the Park another excuse to keep us from building.”