Norberto Santana, Jr.

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State coastal authorities are calling out the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for an illegal takeover of public docks and access near their Newport Beach Harbor Patrol station, which neighbors a popular public beach area and boating docks near the Balboa Yacht Club right alongside Bayside Drive.

“I’ve never seen so many keep-out signs,” said Penny Elia, a well-known Laguna Beach-based environmental activist knowledgeable on the California Coastal Act who visited the area with concerned residents and has been in touch with state and county officials on the issue.

Here’s the letter sent to the OC Sheriff by the Coastal Commission.

With a host of improper and illegal restricted-access signs put up by the Sheriff’s Harbor Master Lt. Chris Corn all around the area, it’s unclear how enforcement around the small cove will be handled during this upcoming Memorial Day weekend – the unofficial start of the summer season.

The small, popular beach cove, used for everything from volleyball to launching kayaks and small boats, borders the county Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard headquarters. The area was designated a public beach and parking drop-off zone by state development permits back in 2008, which authorized improvements to both public safety facilities.

Small cove near Bayside Drive and Newport Beach Harbor Patrol. Julie Leopo Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Yet over the past year, Orange County Sheriff’s officials unilaterally and systematically cut off public access to the area, in direct violation of their 2008 development permit – just around the same time the City of Newport Beach took back the lucrative business of administering public boat moorings from the county.

According to state officials, OC Sheriff deputies improperly put up restricted-use signs all over the area, totally shutting down the public drop-off, parking zone.

“I was pretty shocked once I got the 1995 permit as well as the 2008 permit to see how much public access had been taken,” Elia said.

For example, while state officials gave the public a bunch of parking spots right in front of the beach along with a drop-off circle for vehicles as part of the permit process in 2008, Sheriff’s officials later just unilaterally switched the public parking over to the opposite side of the lot.

The switch forced people to walk through the Sheriff vehicle area and use the drop-off zone, which put the two uses right up against each other.

Frustrated, the Sheriff’s Harbor Master eventually just unilaterally restricted public access to the entire area.

Illegal Parking Restriction Signs Put up by OC Sheriff at Newport Beach Harbor Patrol HQ. Julie Leopo

All this without ever notifying the Coastal Commission that Sheriff’s officials had changed the entire use of the area, granted under a special coastal permit.

When Coastal Commission Enforcement officer Jordan Sanchez visited the facility, it left an impression.

“You wouldn’t know…the beach drop off is still there,” Sanchez said.

Sheriff’s officials also just took over a public visitors’ dock turning it into an emergency dock, preventing any boaters approaching the station from the water from renting public boat slips.

A host of signs on the dock now improperly tell boaters they aren’t allowed on the visitors’ dock.

Illegal signs put up by OC Sheriffs discouraging boaters from using public docks. Julie Leopo

“It’s fair to say somebody who is not familiar with the facility or from the Newport Beach area, if they launched a vessel and they are cruising by and see signs saying authorized personal only…they would have no idea those are public docks…that is a conclusion we can draw,” Sanchez said.

In addition, a host of nearby public dinghy slips available for public rent – once packed – are now largely used by lifeguard boats because boaters can’t dock easily on the main facility to come sign up to rent a public slip.

Public boat docks at Newport Beach habor illegally restricted by OC Sheriff. Julie Leopo.

Again, there’s a host of restricted-used signs all over the dock areas, the visitor dock, the parking lot.

One of many illegal restrictive signs installed at Newport Beach Harbor by OC Sheriff. Julie Leopo

The result is the entire area has been taken over by the Sheriff’s Department.

Illegal barrier erected by OC Sheriff blocking access to Visitors Dock. Julie Leopo

“Nothing but a string of Keep Out signs,” said Elias, who said the whole episode makes her question whether the Sheriff Department should be the county agency charged with administering dinghy slip rentals.

While Sheriff’s officials largely resisted activist and resident complaints, they reacted quickly when called out by state coastal officials this week.

“It is clear…that the Commission and the County envisioned a shared public safety and public recreational use of the docks,” reads a May 20 letter sent to Corn, the harbor master, by Sanchez, the Coastal Commission Enforcement Officer.

Sheriff Don Barnes would not take direct questions from a reporter about the situation but did send a statement through a department spokeswoman that read:

“The Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol is currently working with the California Coastal Commission on non-compliant issues at our facility. We are confident that these issues will be resolved quickly and the outcome will be beneficial to both the boating public and the Harbor Patrol.”

State Coastal Commission regulators confirmed that the Sheriff’s Department was being very cooperative, immediately responding to their May 20 warning letter.

State officials are confident that some very fast fixes – like switching back the public parking, allowing public drop offs and getting new signs – should be able to be implemented quickly.

Changes won’t come in time for Memorial Day weekend but hopefully by the first part of the summer, said Coastal Commission officials.

“We’re trying to get this moving as quickly as possible,” said California Coastal Commission Enforcement Supervisor Andrew Willis

“That’s the goal, restore public access as soon as possible. But to make sure that it’s done in a way that doesn’t interfere with the services of the public safety agencies,” Willis said.

Dealing with the visitors dock situation is a much tougher challenge, Willis admits.

Standing next to a small fleet of Harbor Patrol law enforcement boats from the visitors’ dock, Corn notes how close the public access is to critical public safety equipment.

OC Newport Beach Harbor Master Lt. Chris Corn.

Corn notes that the Harbor Patrol is now under the department’s Homeland Security Division.

Public docks don’t mesh well with that mission.

“It is a rare situation where you have a Sheriff’s facility and public access,” said the Coastal Commission Enforcement Supervisor Willis, confidently adding “it’s not an issue we can’t resolve.”

Yet I wonder?

Can you really fix this conflict without changing the nature of the harbor patrol?

OC Harbor Patrol. Julie Leopo

The loss of public docks and parking lots might just be canaries in our collective coal mine, a soon to be extinct species screaming out a warning to all of us about our eroding freedoms and civil society.

For the harbor patrol, the controversy may signal the final transformation of the park ranger-type operation of the 1970s, when the Harbor Patrol was run by the county parks department.

Indeed, inside the facility’s lobby, you can see the new vision from Harbor Master Corn.

It’s sniper rifles (pointed, oddly enough, right at the public) along with a Navy Seal, SWAT makeover.

Photos inside the OC Harbor Patrol Station in Newport Harbor

This kind of conflict is years in the making, largely brought to residents by inattentive, cowardly county supervisors who are too afraid to question the Sheriff’s Department about the spiraling costs and wandering mission of the Harbor Patrol.

Signs outside the Newport Harbor Patrol note the conflicting uses of the facility. Julie Leopo.

That kind of law enforcement function, if needed beyond the Coast Guard (which is right across the street), should be funded by cities like Newport Beach – not taxpayers, say in Fullerton, who get less county park funding because the county covers costs like patrolling harbors in affluent coastal communities choc full of property taxes.

Besides, how dangerous could the waters of the Newport Beach really be?

Harbor patrol expenses have been reviewed more than two dozen times at the county, with many questioning why the OC Parks budget pays for what is essentially a coastal city law enforcement expense.

Several county supervisors, like Fourth District Supervisor Chris Norby, bravely attempted in recent years – without success – to redirect county park funds away from the harbor patrol.

When confronted with the county Sheriff costs of patrolling harbors, coastal cities have almost always opted toward funding the service themselves through their own police departments.

That should tell us a lot.

Yes, the county is required by the state to patrol our harbors and beaches but that doesn’t necessarily call for an expensive and redundant law enforcement approach to meet county’s responsibilities under state law.

Penny Elia is right that it’s time for some out-of-the-box thinking on solutions for the Harbor Patrol.

And the best one might be to really focus on the answer to her question.

Why have a law enforcement agency renting out boat slips?

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