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Ontario Ridge property owners agree to remove fences blocking trail

Robert and Judith McCarthy of Bakersfield have agreed to remove all fences, signs and support structures they've installed to block hiking trails on Ontario Ridge.
Robert and Judith McCarthy of Bakersfield have agreed to remove all fences, signs and support structures they've installed to block hiking trails on Ontario Ridge. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

A Bakersfield couple who have erected gates and fences atop Ontario Ridge have agreed to remove the unpermitted structures from the popular hiking area by Oct. 17.

In a plan approved Tuesday, Robert and Judy McCarthy agreed to remove barbed wire and other fencing, gates and “No Trespassing” signs that were placed along the heavily-used scenic trail that leads from Pismo Beach to Pirate’s Cove just south of Avila Beach.

The announcement was cause for celebration among coastal activists who fought to have the fences removed.

“Thank you to everyone who wrote letters, showed up at Coastal Commission hearings since February, and who spread the word,” said Shell Beach activist and attorney Tarren Collins in an e-mail. “This victory could not have happened without your outpouring of concern to the Coastal Commission.”

At its July meeting, the California Coastal Commission ordered the McCarthys to remove the unpermitted fencing and signs but required them to first prepare a plan that would spell out exactly how that would be accomplished, which they have done.

“We are pleased that the McCarthys have followed the commission’s order to remove the fences and restore the historic public use of this property quickly and completely,” said Charles Lester, the commission’s executive director. “The public, including many local residents, are looking forward to returning to this fantastic stretch of coast.”

Late last year, the McCarthys began installing the fences and gates, restricting hiking along the Ontario Ridge Trail as well as limiting wildlife migrations and views of the ocean.

The installations caused an outpouring of complaints to the Coastal Commission from members of the public who have told the commission they have been hiking on the ridge since the 1960s.

In their correspondence with the commission, the McCarthys said the fences were necessary to protect themselves from liability because hikers have reportedly fallen and been injured on the particularly steep trail from Pirate’s Cove to the top of the ridge. They also said that some gates remained unlocked, giving the public partial access to the property.

The McCarthys faced daily fines of as much as $11,500 if they failed to comply with the commission’s cease-and-desist order. The commission’s chief of enforcement, Lisa Haage, said the potential to levy fines contributed to a speedy resolution.

“We believe that property owners become a lot more cooperative when they know they might have to pay fines for not complying with the Coastal Act,” she said. “The threat of daily fines accruing provides a strong incentive to resolve a problem, and to resolve it more quickly, rather than argue about it for years on end.”

According to the agreement, the McCarthys will remove all unpermitted fences, signs, gates, gateposts and footings; restore all areas impacted by unpermitted development and the removal of unpermitted development; and vegetate, with native plants, areas that have been disturbed by unpermitted development or the removal of unpermitted development.

There is one exception to the agreement. One gate and fence will be allowed for an additional 45 days, said Sarah Christie, commission spokeswoman.

The gate and fence are adjacent to county property, and the 45 days will allow the commission and county to work out a way to keep all-terrain vehicles from the county property.

“It won’t impede pedestrian access,” Christie said. “The gate will remain open.”

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