Couple who fenced off Ontario Ridge trail to get cease-and-desist order

"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

Calling the situation “outrageous” and “a flagrant violation of the law,” the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to issue a notice of violation and a cease-and-desist order to an Ontario Ridge property owner who installed fences, gates and signs that blocked access to a popular hiking trail.

The order requires Robert and Judith McCarthy of Bakersfield to remove all fences, signs and support structures.

The commission’s decision was one of several actions it took on issues involving San Luis Obispo County during its meeting Friday in Ventura.

Commissioners also rejected most of the county’s plan to make significant changes to a county park at Pirate’s Cove in Avila Beach, and voted to issue a permit for a “spectacular” project to move nearly three miles of Highway 1 on the North Coast about 500 feet inland.

Ontario Ridge Trail

The McCarthys bought the 37-acre property overlooking Pirate’s Cove in Avila Beach in 2010. Late last year, they started installing fences and gates — a move that upset many longtime hikers.

The couple was concerned about hikers’ safety on a steep section of trail connecting Ontario Ridge to Cave Landing Road. They also offered to construct two alternative trails for public access, two representatives told commissioners.

“The McCarthys are very interested in creating a safe passage,” said Kathleen McCarthy, Rob McCarthy’s sister.

However, a Shell Beach resident countered, hikers don’t want another trail.

“It’s perfect the way it is,” Tarren Collins said. “I don’t want to try and tear apart Ms. McCarthy’s argument but we do have a right to this trail.”

Coastal Commission staff said the fences impede long-held public access to the property and can harm wildlife, and sent three letters earlier this year telling the McCarthys that the fencing, gates and signs were unpermitted and needed to be removed.

In addition, staff said, the county obtained an easement across the property in 2009.

“We have many cases of fences and gates being put up to deny access,” Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said. “Safety is often an argument — one that is not up to private property owners to determine what is and what is not safe for the public.”

The commission could seek to impose administrative civil penalties on the McCarthys in the future, but that was not discussed at length in Friday’s hearing.

According to a staff report, penalties could be assessed from $1,000 to $15,000 per day for each day a violation exists. The unpermitted fences and gates were in place for at least 179 days, which equals a penalty between $179,000 and $2.6 million.

Coastal Commission Chair Steve Kinsey said he hopes the McCarthys can work with the county in the future on alterative trail locations.

“But for today,” he added, “the matter in front of us is unpermitted development, and I think it’s fairly clear and obvious that that is the case.”

Pirate’s Cove

Numerous San Luis Obispo County residents urged coastal commissioners to reject the county’s plan to pave the existing dirt parking lot, add a restroom and improve the trail down to Pirate’s Cove beach.

The county project also includes a 1,800-foot-long trail connecting Pirate’s Cove to Pismo Beach. After the project was approved by the county, two appeals were filed with the Coastal Commission.

“What I am asking is that you protect the rural nature and character of this site,” said Brian LoConte, a San Luis Obispo resident and one of the appellants. “I ask that you do not allow this to be asphalt.”

Commission staff recommended approval of the county plan with some modifications, including allowing the parking lot to be closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but keeping all of the other amenities open 24 hours a day.

County sheriff’s Sgt. Stuart MacDonald said closing the park from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., except for the public trail, would help curb the amount of illegal activity that currently takes place overnight.

“On any given night you’ll find people loitering, smoking, drinking, littering with cigarette butts and beer cans, and some of those people are waiting to be approached to engage in illicit sexual activity in public,” he said. The area is “strewn with used condoms, wrappers, drug paraphernalia.”

To that, coastal commissioners suggested that the county install some trash cans and try to increase patrols of the area.

“The preservation of this resource is so important, and by preserving the trail we accomplish that, but not by paving the parking lot,” Commissioner Wendy Mitchell said.

On a motion from Commissioner Erik Howell, who sits on the Pismo Beach City Council, the commission voted unanimously to deny all portions of the project except for the coastal trail.

“If there’s any development on this site, we want to make sure we get it right,” Howell said. Of the trail, he added, “I think if we get that going, it will be a huge improvement to our community.”

County parks officials couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday. It’s unclear what their next steps might be concerning the project.

Highway 1 realignment

The commission also approved a major undertaking: a $57 million project to relocate about 2.8 miles of Highway 1 in the Piedras Blancas area to protect it from erosion and rising sea levels.

“Today really is a milestone for this project,” said Dale Jones, a non-voting member of the commission. “Moving a highway in anticipation of sea-level rise is quite a feat.”

The relocation will start just north of the Piedras Blancas Light Station and extend north to the Arroyo de la Cruz Bridge.

When it is complete, 73 acres will be added to Hearst San Simeon State Park and three and a half miles of new California Coastal Trail will be created.

Permitting for the project is being done jointly among the county, Caltrans, State Parks and the Coastal Commission so only one permit will be issued.

During his presentation, Caltrans District 5 Director Tim Gubbins showed a photo of a wave crashing onto the highway, and added: “Everyone agrees that this is not a sustainable place to have Route 1.”

Coastal Commissioners also voted 8-2 to allow Caltrans to build eight-foot-wide paved shoulders instead of the shoulder that commission staff recommended, with five feet of pavement and three feet of gravel with prairie grasses.

Commissioners heard written and spoken comments from numerous cyclists who said that a wider shoulder would increase safety.

“This extra three feet will give cyclists a sense of comfort and security on that road,” David Abrecht, a member of the San Luis Obispo Bicycle Club, said Friday.

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