Regular visitors describe the isolated stretch of coastline between Avila and Shell Beach as a bluff-protected paradise, and on sunny days, sunbathers will eagerly pack the dirt parking lot and crumbling access road with roughly 100 vehicles before descending the volunteer-maintained trail to Pirate’s Cove, where the clothing is optional, the sand is clean, and the animals and people interact unfettered.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- FIXER-UPPER? : By voting on Feb. 26 to accept Pirate’s Cove into the county’s inventory of parks, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors took the first step toward a paved parking lot and trail improvements that many beach regulars worry will diminish the site’s majestic nature.
Passionate visitors have maintained the area themselves for decades, but on Feb. 26, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to add the site to its parks inventory and accept responsibility for the area’s future maintenance.
In 2008, the county bought a nearby parcel from San Miguelito Partners, LLC, and the company included an offer to add the land surrounding Pirate’s Cove for free. According to Curtis Black of the SLO County Parks Department, the county waited to accept the deal until sufficient grant funds could be lined up to cover the costs of necessary improvements. A total of $1.4 million has been secured from the Coastal Conservancy, California Department of Fish and Game, the State Highway Administration, and a mitigation fund relating to the 1992 Unocal pipeline spill near Avila Beach.
County Parks submitted an application for a coastal development permit in February 2012 and has already paid more than $20,000 in fees for a project that proposes to pave the parking area, repair Cave Landing Road and link it to Bluff Drive in Pismo Beach, build a 20-by-24-square-foot restroom facility, and improve the trail down to the sand, according to Ryan Hostetter of the SLO County Planning Department.
Hostetter said the parking area will accommodate roughly 35 vehicles, a reduction in size that stems from efforts to restore vegetated areas and address bluff erosion. The permit is on hold pending a request for more information.
As the supervisors considered accepting control of the parcel, Brian Laconte spoke during public comment and expressed concerns that a smaller lot wouldn’t accommodate current usage, much less the exacerbated demand that would stem from access improvements. A satellite photo from Google Maps showed 70 vehicles packed into the lot.
“It seems that the project has gone forward with very little public input from the people who know the area well,” he said.
Several speakers added that the character of the place is special and fragile and should be approached with caution. Overall, they said, the site is great as it is and worried that any county involvement would only diminish its appeal. They also worried that increasing access would lead to crowding and trash problems similar to Pismo Beach.
“For years and decades this place has been unmaintained by the county, and we’ve created a community that’s pure,” Holly Hetherington said.
Hetherington explained that the few speakers on hand represented more than 100 supporters who decided not to attend and overwhelm the board with repetitive, over-reactionary comments. Black later noted that the specifics of the project are still in flux, and that he and other staffers would be eager to work with beach regulars to devise improvements that work well for all interested parties.
“We didn’t want to flood the courthouse [sic] with 100 hippies causing a ruckus,” Hetherington said. “The board’s responsive when you treat them with respect. You can complain and attack, but that will never get you anywhere.”
The approach seemed to work. Supervisors seemed to sympathize with their concerns—especially Frank Mecham, who noted that he attended the grand opening of the river trail in Paso Robles on Feb. 23 and was dismayed to find it already littered.
“It’s a double-edge sword in some respects,” Mecham said. “You want to provide something good for the public, but they don’t always use it for good. … Unfortunately, we can’t regulate stupid.”
Parks staff said the project is still in flux and that they’d welcome input from beach regulars. Another public discussion will take place before construction begins, Black said.
While the initial construction costs are covered by grants, ongoing operating costs are estimated at $42,500 per year. ∆
Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at email@example.com.