Beach access is lost, one development at a time

The nonprofit organization Save the Park sued to maintain an old coastal trail in Morro Bay. The replacement trail seen here isn’t adequate, the group says.
The nonprofit organization Save the Park sued to maintain an old coastal trail in Morro Bay. The replacement trail seen here isn’t adequate, the group says.

The Sept. 16, 2017, Tribune article on Save the Park’s lawsuit to protect a public beach access easement in Morro Bay needs a response.

Californians place a high value on access to the state’s beaches. Under state law, after five years of continuous public use of a coastal trail, the public automatically gains a title to an easement on the trail. A public easement is a legal right to use another person’s land for a specific purpose. Ownership of the underlying private property does not include the right to build on an easement, whether it’s a city street or a public coastal access trail.

According to Coastal Commission records, the public had used the trail from Toro Lane to the beach in north Morro Bay continuously since the 1940s. This means that a public easement came into existence on the Toro Lane trail decades ago; the public had a legal right to use the trail easement without obstruction; and the property owners did not have the legal right to build a house on it.

The Coastal Commission, the city and the Frye family who own the beachfront lot crossed by the trail knew the trail had been there long enough to be a public easement. Contrary to Mr. Greg Frye’s claim to The Tribune that his family had “the right to build on land we purchased,” Mr. Frye affirmed in a letter to Save the Park that the lot was undevelopable because of the trail.

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A SLO County judge ruled in favor of Greg and Jeanne Frye, who built a home over a beach access trail in Morro Bay, ending an 18-month legal battle.

Since the Fryes didn’t have the legal property right to build on the trail, why did the city issue a permit for development of that lot and why did the Coastal Commission allow it?

According to the law, the city and the Coastal Commission don’t have the authority to deny a development permit on the ground that an easement crosses the land. The issue of easements relates to the laws of property ownership and has to be decided in court.

That’s why Save the Park brought the lawsuit. Save the Park wanted to validate the public’s title to the easement (quiet the title) and prohibit development on top of the trail easement. Save the Park had no interest in challenging development on another area of the Fryes’ land.

The Fryes could have avoided their claimed $100,000 in legal costs by choosing to honor the public’s right to use the trail and moving the building site off the easement. Instead, they decided to engage in litigation and build a residence directly on top of the trail easement during the lawsuit.

After the trail was destroyed, Save the Park focused on making sure that 1) the replacement trail cut into a steep and unstable creek bank would provide safe and sustainable access, comparable to the decades-old original trail, and that 2) the public easement would be relocated to the new trail site.

It should also be understood that the Fryes’ original development plans did not include a replacement trail at all. Their development plan included burying the public easement trail and giving nothing in return. The Coastal Commission required the replacement trail. The first trail offered by the Fryes was an 18-inch-wide, unimproved cut in the steep creek bank. Save the Park argued for improvements and the trail that is there today came about during the litigation.

The Fryes started out with one buildable lot and a second beachfront lot crossed by a public easement they had no right to obstruct. They ended up with two developable lots and no public easement encumbering their land.

Both the city of Morro Bay and the Fryes refused to take responsibility for maintaining the trail, even though the steep creek bank has a long history of erosion. Without maintenance, the trail will sooner or later become impassible.

The public was the loser in this case. If you think losing one public beach access easement isn’t a big deal, Google “loss of coastal access in California.” Beach access is lost, one development at a time.

Cynthia Hawley is the attorney for Save the Park, a nonprofit organized to protect parks and park-like areas for public benefit.

Correction: Author’s first name has been corrected.