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Residents are increasingly asking who, exactly, local officials have in mind when it comes to public coastal access in Orange County.

The redevelopment of Dana Point Harbor, hotel remodels in Laguna Beach, and a proposed rail project along the vanishing Capistrano Beach are fueling concerns that such access may face increasing threats in the coming years. 

Public access to the beach, its recreational activities and coastal scenery is considered key to people’s mental and physical well being in California, especially to working class inland communities, say state coastal regulators. 

People often go to the county’s beaches to “decompress” from a work life “full of stress,” said Jaime Gomez, a Costa Mesa resident and cook at the Balboa Bay Club and Resort in Newport Beach, during an interview on the streets of Laguna Beach in early June.

Yet, Gomez says, one key factor belies the question of who enjoys coastal access — something state officials consider a fundamental right — more than others: Money.

Gomez, along with members of his regional labor union representing the county’s hospitality and service industry workers, canvassed Laguna Beach neighborhoods on June 9 in protest of a number of planned hotel remodeling projects along the city’s stretch of the coast.

Such planned facelifts include the Pacific Edge Hotel on Sleepy Hollow Lane and Hotel Laguna on Pacific Coast Highway, to name a few.

To proponents, the projects would enhance the coastal city’s aesthetic, surrounding neighborhoods and luxury tourism options, while also giving historic buildings in the community some much-needed upgrades.

Members of Unite HERE say the projects — where hotels in some cases would expand their number of luxury hotel rooms — come with few affordable options for less wealthy people like themselves and symbolize undue control over the coast and its scenery when it’s supposed to be for everyone.

“To be told you can’t enjoy the coastal views unless there’s X amount of money in your bank account is ridiculous,” Gomez told Voice of OC that day, plodding the city’s steep, hilly streets in the morning sun while others from Unite HERE Local 11 knocked on doors.

Further south, even residents who can currently afford to dock boats at Dana Point Harbor, for example, say they may find themselves cast aside for wealthier clientele.

Some of the projects would expand the number of luxury hotel rooms in the city. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Dana Point Harbor

The long-awaited redevelopment of Dana Point Harbor is supposed to revamp the marina’s old buildings, add a few hotels and modernize the area’s infrastructure.

It also means prices are going up on local boaters, starting Oct. 1. 

To keep a boat in the harbor, a smaller boat slip will see as much as a 26% rate increase in rent. A larger boat slip could go up as much as 90% rate.

The decision comes from the harbor’s redevelopers, a group of three firms coalesced under an LLC known as the Dana Point Harbor Partners (DPHP), who now control the marina after signing a master lease to overhaul the area with county supervisors’ approval in 2018.

The price increase has prompted fear that the harbor’s reputation for low-cost access, and appeal to modest boaters will disappear.

It also prompted a campaign by the local boaters’ association to fight back, filling the public comment portions of two recent Orange County Board of Supervisors meetings where boat owners implored the board’s elected leaders to intervene. 

Victoria Winters, one boater at the harbor, put emphasis on the idea of “public access” when appealing to supervisors in public comment on July 13:

“The vast majority of boat owners using the harbor are individuals and families — this harbor was created to give all boat owners the opportunity to enjoy this county-owned public access at reasonable rates, based on good sense by applicable good judgment.”

“Dana Point Harbor is a public asset belonging to all Orange county residents.”

Victoria Winters, one boater at the harbor

Wayne Addison, at the same meeting, said he’s been living out of his boat on the harbor there for about 35 years.

Contrary to popular belief, he said, “not all boat owners are wealthy … we do have budgets to stay within.” 

Addison said he lives on his boat “for a variety of reasons, primarily because it’s an affordable option to housing in Dana Point.”

He said boaters at the harbor were aware of and expecting a potential price increase by the Dana Point Harbor Partners — but that “we expected it to be a reasonable increase.”

Dana Point Harbor Credit: UNSPLASH

The actual extent of the rate increases came as a shock to everyone, according to a June 25 letter from Dana Point Boaters Association President Anne Eubanks.

“If the intent was to drive boaters who require affordability out of the harbor to accommodate more wealthy boaters, then the rate increase will certainly do so,” Eubanks wrote.

In the formal notice of slip rate increases to boaters, Dana Point Harbor Partners argued that “after the Oct. 1 rate increase, all slip categories will be approximately 35% to 45% below the current Orange County average.”

“Our new rates are significantly below the Orange County average, which is the market in which (the harbor) does business,” wrote Joe Ueberroth, who heads up one of the harbor redeveloper’s member firms, Bellwether Financial, in a written response to boaters’ concerns.

Boaters, like Winters, on July 13 called that logic misleading, with that average largely based on one of the only other marinas in the county, in Newport Beach, where prices are considerably higher for a much wealthier area. 

The developers say they plan on accommodating for lower-cost access at the harbor through things like an educational program for youth from low-income or “underserved” communities.

Such an educational program would teach kids from these communities skills like sailing. The developers say they also plan to upgrade older facilities like docks to make them more accessible to people with disabilities, and bring public access areas closer to the waterfront.

Public access, after all, is “not just about boating,” Ueberroth said to Coastal Commissioners at a Sept. 9 meeting last year, adding “it’s about being able to offer amenities for everybody.”

Still, Coastal Commission staff in a report attached to that meeting voiced worry that the project could take away recreational boating opportunities from the general public due to what staff say will be a “net loss of smaller slips (boats’ allotted spaces at the docks)” and a decrease in lower-cost opportunities like charter boat services.

Capistrano Beach

Further south, a controversial $50 million proposal for train track siding in Capistrano Beach has locals in an uproar — questioning the actual need for the project, while pointing out it will impact what is already one of the most economically and environmentally sensitive stretches of the coastline. 

Known as the Serra Siding project, officials would build 1.2 miles of additional siding track next to the existing mainline track, from Victoria Boulevard to Beach Road and adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway. Capistrano Beach is located within the City of Dana Point.

The beach along this area has suffered dramatic sand loss and erosion over the years, and locals as a result say they’ve lost recreational space, a chunk of the area’s south parking lot and other facilities.

To build another train track, when the existing one is already so close to the shore, and create a construction zone in the area for two years would further whittle away at public access, says Capistrano Beach resident Toni Nelson, who has vocally opposed the project. 

“Our south parking lot is just gone. All those spots, nobody can get to because the ocean has eaten it. You can’t put a towel down parallel to the shore in some areas at high tide (due to erosion). Now we’ll have more trains in the area,” Nelson said. 

[Read: Proposed Rail Project Along Eroding South OC Coastline Comes Under the Microscope]

Known as the Serra Siding project, more than a mile of additional siding track would be built along Capistrano Beach. Credit: GARRET TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

More trains would also block views from the area’s hotels — which Nelson says are more affordable compared to others along the coast — and come close to pedestrians walking along the adjacent sidewalks to cross the tracks and get to the beach, she said. 

“People should care about this. A million people a year come here,” she added. 

The agencies pushing the project, regional train service Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), say a siding track in the area will relieve bottleneck issues and “choke point” train delays along the passenger rail system. 

Thus, officials argue, the project would make the rail system more reliable and encourage more ridership in a system beset by a lack of it — an investment into local rail infrastructure that proponents say is much needed. 

“What’s key here is we’re going to basically have … 3 miles of (extra) track that allows trains to pass one another,” said Justin Fornelli, Chief of Program Delivery for Metrolink, presenting on the project at a July 20 Dana Point City Council meeting.

“The idea with the siding track is we are trying to time our trains so they don’t have to slow down to pass each other … There is some slowing for diversion and movement to get that switch but for the most part, we want to maintain our operational speeds.”

“When people can’t get home, to work on time, we’re not reliable,” he said. In turn, when the rail system isn’t reliable, people don’t use it. 

Nelson on the other hand questions why the project has to go along Capistrano Beach and not a more industrial area away from coastal access points. She also questions whether the real winner with this project would ultimately be private companies who need their goods transported by freight trains.

She points to a September 2020 report by the North County Transit District — a public transportation agency in north San Diego County — which cites the Serra Siding project as part of its long term, strategic vision for regional rail service, known as the San Diego Pathing Study.

That same study lays out a long term strategy to eventually run as many as eight freight trains per day, and between three to eight trains per hour along the rail system.

The Serra Siding project is currently in its preliminary design phase, with public meetings and permitting processes all still to come. If the project is permitted, construction would begin in early 2025, officials say.

Metrolink officials have said publicly they’re taking residents’ concerns into consideration, and that they’re considering project alternatives proposed, as well as a “no-build” scenario.

“It’s a bad place for a train. The whole premise makes no sense to me,” Nelson said. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord

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