A complex Southern California coastal access battle is playing out on the Dana Point headlands, an environmental preserve and recreational area overlooking almost the entire Orange County coastline up to Palos Verdes.

The oceanside bluff is a bastion of public coastal access – a place for joggers, hikers or those who just want to sit at one of the trail’s breezy lookout points and gaze at the commanding views.

But the area is also home to various endangered animals and plants, some of which were thought to be extinct, triggering the protective instincts of conservationists who have recently moved to restrict the trail’s hours. 

It’s this dual role of the headlands – a coastal public access point and highly sensitive natural sanctuary – which has City of Dana Point officials and environmentalists locked in a contentious and costly legal battle for control of one of the region’s most scenic natural landscapes. 

City of Dana Point officials say the group’s access restrictions are a violation of the California Coastal Act of 1976, the state’s cornerstone law designed to protect the coast and public coastal access.

Yet environmentalists working with the Center for Natural Land Management say all it takes is one wrong step by a trail visitor to “crush” burrows for mice once thought to be extinct and “trample important plants.”

“At one point the City even opened the Center’s gates to the Preserve without permission and locked them open, thereby allowing uncontrolled public access,” reads a Feb. 1 statement from the organization.

The battle specifically concerns a mile-long hiking trail loop spanning the coastal bluff and environmental preserve owned by the Center for Natural Land Management.

Public access to the trail has been reopened but constricted by spotty opening hours, following a complete closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The restrictions for a time created an occasional scene at the trailhead gate, where visitors would show up only to find out they came the wrong day or missed the time window. 

After pressure from the city, the organization reopened the trail for two days a week – three hours each day – in October 2020. Since July 2021, the trail has been open for three days a week: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 8 p.m. to 4 p.m.

In response, the City of Dana Point is suing the organization and calling for the trail to reopen for full public access, seven days a week from sunrise to sundown. Prior to March 2020, the trail was open on this schedule since 2010.

“Despite repeated requests from the City, CNLM has to date refused to re-open the Preserve, including but not limited to the Nature Trail and Overlook Areas, to daily public access during daylight hours, notwithstanding the fact that State and County regulations related to COVID-19 that might otherwise justify the closure of these public assets were lifted on or about May 19, 2020,” the city’s filing reads.

The city is seeking damages of $15,000 per day since the trail closed on May 15, 2020, as authorized by the California Coastal Act, adding to at least $9.1 million.

But the issue may not just be as simple as just allowing public access. 

The headlands nonprofit’s purpose is to maintain preservation of the unique plant and animal life in the area, and having this trail open to visitors may pose a threat to the endangered species the organization aims to protect.

Unique animal life in the area includes the Pacific pocket mouse and the California gnatcatcher. 

The pocket mouse was thought to be extinct before it was discovered in Dana Point, and the only other known existence of the animal is in Camp Pendleton. 

The organization originally filed a complaint against the city for chaining open the gates to the bluff-top trail and issuing fees for the trail remaining closed, despite the harm continued public access may cause. 

“[The city] insists that the Preserve must be open every day from dawn to dusk, even though the Preserve’s species are most vulnerable at dawn and dusk,” reads the nonprofit’s statement. “Although the City wants to throw the Preserve’s gates wide open even if the species go extinct, the Center cannot passively stand by and let that happen.”

According to the statement, the Center for Natural Land Management revisited how public access can affect the preservation area during its closure and concluded that “public use was a threat to the protected species” in the area. Reasons for the trail’s continued closure include the need for further preservation that unfiltered access can’t allow.

The statement emphasizes that all public use of this trail can harm the endangered species in the area.

“Recent scientific studies elsewhere have reached the same conclusion: the movement, sights, sounds, and smells of visitors, even if they are following the posted rules and staying on the trail, can harm protected species,” the statement reads. “When the public violates the rules and goes off trail, they crush the burrows of pocket mice and trample important plants.”

This lawsuit – claiming the trail closures violate the Coastal Act and development entitlements according to the city’s municipal code – comes after the Center for Natural Land Management filed a complaint against city citations from the closure.

The City of Dana Point also finds itself at the front lines of what may be a regional coastal access battle – one where the redevelopment of the nearby Dana Point Harbor has meant increased boat space rental rates and possible reduction in offerings of low-cost harbor fun. 

Yet such access disputes have popped up in recent years up and down the county’s coastline. 

In 2019, the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. propped up ‘keep out’ signs at a public coastal entrance near its marine patrol facility at Newport Harbor – shuffling parking spaces around while taking some boating amenities and access away from the general public there.

Harbor patrol officials, at the time, argued it was a matter of security. 

State coastal regulators deemed their actions unlawful in 2019, and by last June the County of Orange was told not only to restore the access it took away, but to look into providing even more of it, through things like additional parking, amenities, and even a boating lift that can accommodate people with disabilities. 

Hotel remodels in Laguna Beach, and a proposed rail project along the vanishing Capistrano Beach are also fueling concerns that coastal access may face increasing threats in the coming years.

[Read: Residents Challenge Who Gets Priority Access to Orange County’s Coast]

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to preserve the last and largest swath of privately-owned coastal open space between Ventura County and Mexico – known as Banning Ranch, in Newport Beach – into a 384-acre public park. 

Though not everyone in town is on board. Namely, city officials have eyed the land for housing development.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

Staff reporter Brandon Pho contributed to this story.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.