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.