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THE SEA RANCH — A bluff-top trail leading to one of the most popular beaches this striking and exclusive community has to offer reopened this summer after 11 years of study and negotiation, restoring public access to a quarter-mile stretch of scenic coastline that once was at risk of being closed to outsiders for good.

A licensing agreement allowing use of Sea Ranch property for a realigned public trail means Walk On Beach can welcome visitors once more.

But in addition to clearing access to the wide, sandy beach, the dealmaking that permitted trail barricades to come down may signal a softening of relations between Sonoma County and The Sea Ranch that could improve prospects for future negotiations over public access routes in the area.

At a minimum, the bitter echoes of a decades-old feud ostensibly settled when developers of The Sea Ranch were forced to provide public access points along its 10-mile expanse may finally have begun to fade, several involved parties said.

“I think there has been a shift just with the passage of time, and the demographics here have changed,” said Jackie Gardener, chairwoman of the elected Sea Ranch Association board. “That was a long time ago, and there aren’t that many people left that experienced the frustration back then.”

“It’s taken a couple of years to heal those old wounds,” Sonoma County Senior Parks Planner Mark Cleveland said.

The detente over access to a short stretch of trail and the beach to which it leads involves an area where some of the most formidable battles over public rights to California’s coastline were fought in the 1970s, leading to creation of the California Coastal Commission to protect coastal resources and enhance public use.

The trail at issue is part of a more than 3-mile corridor along the coastline from Gualala Point Regional Park in the northwesternmost corner of Sonoma County to Walk On Beach. The beach is one of five in Sea Ranch accessible to the public via lateral trails connecting the coast to Highway 1 parking areas.

Most of the bluff-top trail exists within a 15-foot-wide pedestrian easement granted to the California Coastal Conservancy in 1981 by The Sea Ranch under legislation acknowledging public ownership of the California coastline. The law specified public access conditions that would permit development of housing to resume after a seven- year moratorium.

But in 2003, the battering waves that are causing retreat along sections of the Sonoma Coast took several large bites out of the bluff near Walk On Beach and caused some of the trail to fall into the sea.

A year later, after workarounds led to problems with trespassing on individual private properties and Sea Ranch commons, fencing closed the passage to Sea Ranch residents, guests and the public alike.

But while Sea Ranch residents were inconvenienced, they had freedom to use other pathways within the subdivision’s 50-mile system of trails, including a meadow trail a short distance inland from the failed bluff trail to reach Walk On Beach.

Outsiders, prohibited from using roads and trails in The Sea Ranch beyond those specifically designated for public use, could not reach the beach unless they trespassed.

The problem, in part, was that portions of the actual easement had fallen away, so initial discussions on restoring the trail focused on reconstructing the easement with a sea wall or a bridge of some kind, said Frank Bell, community manager for The Sea Ranch.

“It really was a dilemma,” said Bell, who caught up on the history after coming on board in 2010. “It would have been a difficult construction project, not the least of which was it was on the bluff. How you going to bring heavy equipment out there?”

There were expensive, time- consuming geotechnical studies to conduct. Design and constructions costs also were an issue, with estimates in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the recession hit, talks stalled. The rotating membership of The Sea Ranch board and turnover of managers didn’t help, Gardener said.

Adding to the complexity was that the failed section of bluff top brought the continent’s edge ever closer to two houses at the end of a cul de sac called Sea Pine Reach. Homeowners reportedly welcomed the trail closure and the absence of strangers traipsing by and even onto their property.

But there was also the impact of residual rancor from the 1970s and ’80s, when activists vying to protect public access along California’s 1,100-mile coastline successfully fought to preserve public pathways through The Sea Ranch to the ocean, Bell and others conceded.

The Sea Ranch Association was resistant to what Cleveland, with county parks, thought was perhaps the most practical solution — realigning the trail easement by moving it landward onto the Ranch’s meadow common. Residents bristled at the notion of relinquishing more land, particularly given guarantees in the Bane Bill, the legislation requiring public access easements, that The Sea Ranch would not be asked to give up more land.

“That was really an issue,” said Gardener, chairwoman of the seven- member Sea Ranch board, “because the county was fairly intractable about wanting a new easement, or a floating easement” that retreated as the coastline did, “and we were fairly intractable about not giving any more property away.”

Lee Kosso, a 20-year resident of Sea Pine Reach just east of the trail closure, said she and a neighbor couldn’t even sell the larger community on a proposal to open the meadow trail temporarily for public access to Walk On Beach.

Nowadays, with the bluff trail reopened, “most of the people I am friendly with are very willing to have the public come on,” Kosso said. “I think attitudes are changing.”

“It was a battle worth fighting,” Cleveland said of the coastal access campaign, “but the residual effects have affected our working relationships with them up until the last three or four years.”

Cleveland said part of the problem is that the initial easements used fixed points to establish the boundaries, rather than defining them in relation to the retreating bluff edge. That’s still an issue, given several areas of the bluff trail north of Walk On Beach are at risk of failure and some are already affected. A study in 1997 identified 23 spots at risk of failure even then.

Progress toward a solution finally began a few years ago when Bell began discussing with the board the possibility of a revocable licensing agreement through which The Sea Ranch could permit the county to run a trail inland from the easement without having to move the easement.

The parties made a trial run last year, with a licensing agreement permitting realignment of three smaller areas of bluff trail affected by erosion. Success gave the parties confidence to reach a second agreement.

Critical to approval by The Sea Ranch, Gardener said, is “they’re using our property, and it stays our property. I think that was a key change in the approach that allowed it finally to go forward.”

The agreement is subject to renewal at specified intervals, and the “revocable” part of the agreement means that either party can decide not to renew it in the future.

And it doesn’t solve the problem that the shifting landscape at some point could make reconfiguration of the bluff-top trail necessary.

But Cleveland hopes the settlement may portend smoother negotiations in the future, if the need to address the trail arises again.

“I am sympathetic to what happened,” Cleveland said of past disputes between The Sea Ranch and the state. “I wasn’t here in ’81 when it all happened, and I don’t know the whole story there. But it is what it is now, and that’s what we have to deal with.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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