For decades, the beach that parallels Santa Claus Lane was a hidden gem, with free parking a short jaunt to the sea and, more recently, a handful of nearby eateries and other small shops. The nearly one-mile stretch — popular with families, surfers, and day-trippers from around the county and beyond — has long maintained a rural freedom of sorts, accentuated by the very real danger that rumbles to life every time a beachgoer crosses the railroad tracks via one of several trails through the low dunes and seawall riprap. Modern trains are fast and quiet, and as they round the bend near Santa Claus Lane, it’s not uncommon for them to sneak up on pedestrians.
As the beach’s popularity has soared over the years — with an estimated 1,000 visitors on any given sunny summer day — Santa Barbara County land-use planners have slowly moved forward with long-held plans to revamp Santa Claus Lane with improved parking, bathrooms, and a safe crossing over the tracks to the sand. While there’s no debating that burgeoning crowds and speeding trains make for a deadly matchup — as in 2007, when Carpinteria’s Alan Shapiro and his dog, Sable, were killed there by a northbound passenger train — there’s been significant pushback on the county’s plan to develop one safe crossing and fence off all the rest.
Currently along Santa Claus Lane, there are a dozen or so trails to the beach, all of them within a few hundred yards of where the road begins at Padaro Lane. These old, informal paths to the tracks and the beach beyond are the only public access points along the five-mile stretch of coastline between Summerland’s Loon Point parking lot (which is gated at night) and Carpinteria city limits near Ash Avenue.
“The county’s plan is getting mixed reviews,” said Chris Keet, founder of Surf Happens surf camp, now in its 17th year at Santa Claus Beach. “Over the years, I’ve pulled at least 10 people off the tracks as the train was coming through. It can be dangerous. But there needs to be more than one crossing to the beach.”
While the county plans to provide a drop-off spot — where beachgoers can leave their gear while tending to parking — the majority of the complaints fielded by planners in recent weeks lament the inevitable bottleneck created by multiple families, summer camps, and occasional wedding parties stacked up at a single crossing point.
County officials contend that their plan’s entire scope — which includes more than 100 additional parking spots and beach access compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act — “will more than offset any potential inconvenience that having just one crossing may cause,” said Supervising Planner Allen Bell. He added that none of the existing crossings are technically legal; pedestrians on the tracks are trespassing on Union Pacific property. “The county’s goal is to provide a safe, legal crossing.”
By several accounts, the county was lucky to secure even a single, authorized at-grade crossing. The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulates such crossings, Bell explained, and its policy is to eliminate at-grade crossings. Initially, the PUC would only entertain a pedestrian tunnel or bridge at the location, the former deemed too expensive by the county while the latter got a thumbs-down from the California Coastal Commission. Further, to get the PUC’s blessing for Santa Claus Lane, the county had to identify and shut down an illegal crossing elsewhere in the county, which it did in an agricultural area near Lompoc, Bell said. “The PUC has been willing to support one at-grade crossing [at Santa Claus Lane], but a second or third crossing isn’t in the realm of possibility.” The PUC is also requiring the county to install four-foot-tall metal fencing on either side of the new crossing, ostensibly to keep pedestrians from using the old trails.
Staffers in 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s office and county planners are meeting internally on April 14 to discuss the public’s concerns and organize community forums as the plan progresses.