Update, May 10: Citing inconsistencies with state and county law, the California Coastal Commission has requested that the parking lot gate and new signage at Loon Point be removed. Not only were the gate and sign installed without a permit, the new posted hours allow beach access between 8 a.m. and sunset, a window more restricted than historic use from dawn to dusk. “The next step is I’m talking to [the Coastal Commission] regarding their request,” said Brian Yanez, deputy director of Santa Barbara County Parks Department.
On any given warm day in Summerland, beachgoers fill the Loon Point parking lot and hoof it along the trail that parallels the train tracks before cutting beneath the Padaro Lane overpass and down the gentle ravine to the sand. It’s a popular spot for families because there’s free parking, a porta-potty, and lots of room to spread out once they reach the beach. Surfers and fishermen dig it, too, its rural ambiance and crashing waves drowning out the background hum of Highway 101.
Many Loon Point visitors don’t know that Santa Barbara County Parks Department put up a new sign, with hours that shrink the amount of time the public has access to the gated parking lot and beach trail. The old sign said, “Closed dusk to dawn.” The new sign, installed last fall, says open 8 a.m. to sunset. According to Brian Yanez, the parks department deputy director, the new rules at Loon Point were instated “to be consistent” with park hours countywide. Yanez added that the original dawn-to-dusk open hours proved challenging in terms of staffing, as those natural phenomena occur at different times throughout the year.
The problem with the new hours at Loon Point, according to longtime Summerland resident Reeve Woolpert (pictured above), is multifold. First of all, Woolpert explained, closing the trail and parking lot at sunset, instead of dusk, lops half an hour from the end of a beach day. Worse, he added, depending on the time of year, dawn happens well before 8 a.m. In the middle of June, for instance, dawn comes as early as 5:15 a.m., truncating morning beach access by nearly three hours (and, for surfers and fishermen, ruling out a Loon Point dawn patrol).
Worse still, Woolpert continued, the county knows better. It’s right there in black-and-white: According to the 1986 easement that created the beach trail, it “shall be used solely for passive recreation during the daylight hours (dawn to dusk).” That public access along a historic trail was set up by the California Coastal Commission when the owner at the time — a corporation called Southern California Unique Investments — subdivided its expansive bluff-top property.
“It blows me away how little the county knows about what it has inherited,” said Woolpert, vice president of the Summerland Citizens Association. “Little by little, the exceptional recreational experience has been affected by the very wealthy along western Padaro Lane and their unrelenting gentrification of those beaches. My hope is that the general public will be vigilant and concerned about further privatization, and that they realize Santa Barbara County cannot be assumed to be a friend or forthright in this matter.”
With the county’s new signage — and the parking lot gate, which was installed without a permit in 2010, mainly to thwart overnight campers, drinkers, and trysters — the Coastal Commission is back in the mix. According to Noaki Schwartz, the agency’s public information officer, “We are in discussions with the county and have notified them that we want to maximize access and that these changes need a permit. If the county intends to change the hours of access of the beach trail, or affect use of the trail, that change would require a public hearing.”
The issue has another facet. Since at least 2012, a private security team has been in charge of opening and closing the public access gate. The security guards live on the bluff-top estate owned by Bruce Kovner, 72, a Brooklyn-born investor and philanthropist with a net worth in the billions. Kovner bought the 15-acre Loon Point property in 2007 for about $84 million. Along with remodeling an existing mansion, Kovner spruced up the beach trail with drought-resistant landscaping and a shallow drainage lined with cobblestones.
According to the 1986 agreement, if the county fails to hold up its end of the deal — namely to regularly patrol the trail and crack down on vandalism, trespassing, nude sunbathers, etc. — the easement will “revert to [Kovner] and [his] heirs.”
Emails to the Kovner Foundation were not returned, and Price, Postel & Parma’s Chip Wullbrandt, an attorney representing Kovner, could not be reached for comment before deadline. Sources familiar with the situation said Kovner has no intention of shutting down the beach trail. “He doesn’t want to do that,” Yanez confirmed. According to Parks Operations Manager Sherman Hansen, the number of complaints coming out of Loon Point are “no more and no less” than other beach parks.
“I’m just waiting for some direction from [the Coastal Commission] before I can move forward,” Yanez said, adding that, in the meantime, the agency is not requiring the county to remove the gate or reinstate the trail’s original “dawn to dusk” hours.