By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
Tabatha Yewchuk’s evening supper is sometimes hard to swallow.
“I am eating dinner, and people are urinating in my yard! And I have no rights?” asked Yewchuk, who lives on Eagle Rock Way in South Laguna.
She joined an overflowing annual meeting of the South Laguna Civic Association where residents expressed frustration over the escalating impact of tourists including property crimes, public urination and parking in their neighborhoods to city officials this past Monday, March 13.
“I want as little parking as possible in South Laguna, like none,” said resident Cindy Obrand. “I have some red paint for the curbs if anyone wants to help me.”
Residents don’t need a reminder of how tourist growth has impacted South Laguna in the last two years. City officials say tourist visits to Laguna’s beaches have soared to over 6 million in 2015 from 2.5 million in 2000. And that number continues to grow, with authorities crediting an eruption of housing developments north of Laguna Beach and social media beach buzz for the rapid increase.
“Many people have to get to the beach to do the perfect selfie or find the perfect spot,” said Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow. “It doesn’t have to be safe at all. They are going to do it.”
With more visitors comes an increased need for law enforcement resources, and first responders are having a hard time keeping up. An ever-warmer climate and almost year-round beach weather is drawing record crowds, with the largest impact felt during the off season and “shoulder seasons” when levels are traditionally lower. Since 2013, marine safety officials say there has been a 900% percent increase in water rescues, 134% increase in medical aids and 302% increase in advising visitors of ordinance violations.
Table Rock Beach resident David Lee sees people regularly leaping from the rock formation. “It is scary. I know every so often somebody jumps in and doesn’t come out again. What can you do to stop that?”
Police Captain Jason Kravetz said misdemeanor arrests are made, but even prosecutors are dismissive of the charges. “The court looks at us like, Laguna… really?” he said.
Residents’ tempers flared as they pled with the city for more help dealing with the lawlessness of some beach-goers in their neighborhoods.
“There’s poopy diapers behind my house. There’s tampons. There are people on our beaches that have nowhere to go to the bathroom,” said Obrand, who lives on Mar Vista Avenue.
There is only one public restroom in the area, located at the bottom of 13 flights of stairs at Thousand Steps Beach.
Despite the frustrations voiced by residents, police say aggravate assaults in the area have declined 22 percent since 2015, credited to the addition of a police “foot beat.” Auto thefts declined 62 percent and drunk driving arrests fell 21 percent, attributed to ride-hailing services. Burglary, though, rose 79 percent in South Laguna, a number Kravetz says is skewed because of a serial burglar that hit a half-dozen businesses last year and was arrested.
Police calls to Aliso Beach, Mission Hospital and Thousand Steps Beach all increased last year, but Kravetz attributes that to calls that were self-initiated by officers on the streets.
Arrests rose three fold last summer to 139 compared to 42 in 2015, Kravetz said. “Things we may have cited people for in the past, we took them to jail,” he said.
Authorities reassured residents a police presence will surge starting this summer. Voter-approved Measure LL funds will result in the addition of four full-time non-sworn beach patrol officers, two of them dedicated to South Laguna. Part-time patrollers will be added as well.
“Whereas in the past you would see beach patrol on the beaches during the daytime hours, these guys are going to be working nights,” said Lt. Joe Torres. While they lack the power of sworn officers, “they are the eyes and ears,” he said.
Residents also say their streets are overrun with tourists because of a lack of parking in South Laguna. Visitors are parking in neighborhoods to board trolleys destined for Main Beach and North Laguna.
Pat Menne, who lives at 10th Street and Coast Highway, criticized a $5 fee imposed in the hospital lot last summer, a policy since rescinded. “Why do you think they are parking in our neighborhoods? Because it’s free.”
Civic Association leaders called for restrictions that limit non-resident parking in neighborhoods and opposed the installation of metered parking on Coast Highway because it could push more cars onto their streets.
Assistant City Manager Shoreh Dupuis said any parking changes require a coastal development permit.
“If the land use codes say there should be some parking, then we need to change the land use codes,” Obrand said. “South Laguna is fragile, both at our beaches and in our neighborhoods.”
Police Civilian Services Supervisor Jim Beres said a hike soon in fines that exceeds the current $43 for a violation could further deter illegal tourist parking. Police urged residents to call in license plates of lawbreakers.
“We are hoping to see a difference this summer for this community,” Torres said.