Home Nature preserves Dana Point Suing Nature Center on Blufftop Trail

Dana Point Suing Nature Center on Blufftop Trail

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By Breeana Greenberg

The town of Dana Point is suing the Canter for Natural Lands Management (CNLM) for restricting access to a public trail it has managed on a 29-acre coastal reserve since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 21, the town of Dana Point argued that the center, a nonprofit organization charged with protecting west coast reservations, illegally restricted public access to the summit of the Cliff Nature Trail and Dana Point Preserve.

“Put simply, the Center for Natural Lands Management is trying to keep the public out,” Dana Point Mayor Joe Muller said in a news release. “When we agreed to development on the headlands, we demanded, in return, public access to these beautiful trails and coastline for our residents and visitors.”

In a statement regarding the city’s lawsuit, the CNLM defended its decision to continue restricting access to the trail, citing scientific studies that have concluded that the sights, sounds and smells of visitors can harm protected species, especially when visitors go off the trail.

“We understand the public interest in walking the trail and intend to continue to provide public access,” CNLM said. “But it is also our responsibility to protect the sensitive natural resources along the coast, including endangered species which, unlike us and other hikers, have no other options for their well-being.”

Since its opening in April 2010, the Nature Trail has been accessible to the public from 7 a.m. to sunset, seven days a week. In response to the pandemic in March 2020, the city closed the public trails it manages and the CNLM closed nature trail at bluff summit for public safety.

In mid-May 2020, the City of Dana Point reopened its public trails in accordance with state and county health guidelines.

Beginning in mid-October 2020, the CNLM allowed limited public access from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the lawsuit says. The lawsuit added that the city informed CNLM that the hours did not meet the requirements set out for the nonprofit organization for public use and requested that the trail’s operating hours return to 7 a.m. at sunset, seven days a week.

In mid-June, the CNLM increased the hours of operation of the trail to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On June 18, 2021, the City of Dana Point issued CNLM a Notice of Violation to encourage the organization to resume normal trail hours of operation.

According to CNLM, the city fined the center $500 for each day the reserve is not open.

“Trying to protect these species while allowing the public to access them for their enjoyment has been a challenge for the Center,” the CNLM said in its statement. “When the trail on the reserve was closed in March 2020 due to COVID-related public health guidelines, center staff took the opportunity to review the volume of public access, impacts on the reserve and its resident species, and the growing scientific literature that has revealed the impacts of public trail use on natural areas.

In early September 2021, the CNLM filed a lawsuit, appealing city citations for the trail closure. The lawsuit filed by the Town of Dana Point is a counterclaim against CNLM.

CNLM argues instead that opening the trails from 7 a.m. until sunset puts the species that reside in the reserve at unnecessary risk when they are most vulnerable, at dawn and dusk.

The city’s lawsuit claims that any changes to the trail’s operating hours would require a coastal development permit.

The lawsuit also says the California Coastal Commission asserted in November 2021 that CNLM needed to apply for a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) from the city of Dana Point specifically for the purpose of changing hours of operation.

The Coastline Commission, according to the city’s lawsuit, said that without obtaining a CDP to set times that restrict public access to the trail, the CNLM is in violation of the Coastline Act.

“People want and need access to the outdoors and fresh air for walking, hiking, jogging and birdwatching,” Muller said. “This entire network of trails is essential to our city’s commitment. Although the city has issued numerous citations against CNLM over the past few months, CNLM was unwilling to honor our original agreement, which is why we are now forced to take this final step.

The town of Dana Point is seeking the maximum penalty allowed by coastal law: $15,000 per day that trail access was restricted. The lawsuit says the city is seeking a total of $9.18 million, reflecting 612 days and counting that the trail did not resume pre-COVID hours of operation.

In its press release, the CNLM said it is “considering adjusting hours of operation to provide more public access, and in this regard is consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to refine its analysis of public access.”

Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a Bachelor of Arts in English. Prior to joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance journalist for the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at [email protected]

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