Fences on Ontario Ridge trail must be removed, officials say

"No trespassing" signs and barbed-wire fences were put up in a popular hiking area on Ontario Ridge above Avila Beach earlier this year.
"No trespassing" signs and barbed-wire fences were put up in a popular hiking area on Ontario Ridge above Avila Beach earlier this year. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

An agreement was reached Friday between the California Coastal Commission and San Luis Obispo County planning officials that barbed-wire fences installed in a popular hiking area on Ontario Ridge above Avila Beach must be removed.

As a result, a hearing scheduled for Thursday at the Coastal Commission’s meeting in Pismo Beach will be canceled, Commission District Director Dan Carl said.

The county and Coastal Commission now agree that the property owners should have applied for permits before erecting the fences so there is no need for a hearing, Carl said.

“As soon as we have written confirmation from the county, it will be formally pulled from the agenda,” he said.

County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes Ontario Ridge, confirmed the agreement. The county has agreed to let the Coastal Commission handle enforcement, the details of which will be worked out next week, Hill said.

The county had originally concluded that a permit was not needed for the fences. This week, the county agreed with the commission that a permit was needed because no records were found to show the property was exempt from the requirement, Hill said.

The county will not agree to issue a permit for the fences, he said.

“My whole focus is that I want the fences down and the trails open to the public,” Hill said.

The dispute centered on a series of fences that had been installed earlier this year on a 37-acre ridge-top parcel that blocked use of informal trails that have long been popular with the public — particularly a steep trail connecting the Pirate’s Cove parking lot at Cave Landing with Ontario Ridge.

Property owners Rob and Judi McCarthy of Bakersfield put up the “no trespassing” signs. The Coastal Commission received multiple complaints from hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who said they have been using the trails on the property going back to the 1960s.

“A lot of people are really riled up about this and understandably so,” Carl said.

A Coastal Commission staff report concluded, “In short, the subject fencing and signs have led to significant restrictions of public use along a significant trail segment that has long been used by the public.

“The fact that the fencing and signs were not appropriately permitted is particularly troubling.”

The owners of the property claim the trail is so steep it is unsafe and poses a liability risk for them. All of the fences are within the owners’ property, a triangular-shaped parcel that extends from Cave Landing Road up and over the hillside.

“Having people walk up and down a 50 percent slope is not safe,” said Dave Watson, a planner who represents the owners. “If we don’t do something about it, I think we are liable.”

The McCarthys want to see the dispute resolved in an amicable way, and the new agreement does not change their position on the matter, Watson added.

The McCarthy family’s conflicts with the Coastal Commission began a year ago when the commission denied a request by the family to build a large home on the parcel about 500 feet up the slope from Cave Landing Road. At that hearing, the McCarthys offered to build a new safer trail to the top of the ridge.

Since then, the family has sued the Coastal Commission in an attempt to get the ruling overturned. Two months after the hearing, the Coastal Commission began investigating whether to officially open the trails on the family’s property using the prescriptive rights process.

If the commission can show that the public has used the property for years without the owner objecting, the commission could ask a judge to formally declare it open to the public.

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