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Protecting Endangered Life on Our Beaches

By Howard Hills

Howard Hills

I have been playing in the sand at Fisherman’s Cove since I got my first tin shovel and bucket at the age of 2.  By the summer I turned 4 the ruins of the old boathouse on the lower bluff was where we recruited kids into the pirate’s life, amid maritime relics left by fishermen who gave the cove its name.

Just a few summers later I was a Laguna Beach Junior Lifeguard, and part of my job at the cove was filling in bonfire pits in the morning before beachgoers arrived.  That entailed shoveling sand through a sifter to remove broken beer bottles, chunks of charcoal, as well as wallets and watches for the lost and found.

It was like old times this winter when I found myself back on the beach after the heavy rains, digging out boats buried in a mudslide. One rowboat was crushed by a large piece of the boathouse foundation that came down the cliff with the mud.   That made me look up hill at an even larger section of the old rock foundation still covered with ice plant, appearing just as firmly embedded in the cliff as it had for decades.

A closer look revealed this large section of rock wall weighing thousands of pounds was defying gravity just above the beach where college students gather, families picnic, and little kids dig in the sand. I cleared away the ice plant and tried, but it was so massive I was unable to dislodge it. Dusk passed into dark and cold, so I posted improvised signs warning of the danger.

I resolved to alert the city to the hazard in the morning so the danger could be mitigated. That night I woke up to a driving rain, and went down before dawn to find the huge section of thick rock wall had slid down the slope harmlessly, and now rested on the sand below. I had disturbed its state of repose just enough for a hard rain to change the physics and move the rock I could not budge at all.

The beach was made safe, but the story was not meant to end there.  As I hiked home along the rocky reef at the north end of Shaw’s Cove, I came upon several large boulders that also had just given way from the cliff above.  The section of cliff that had fallen between Shaw’s and Crescent Bay was about the size of a compact car, and would have crushed anyone who might have been walking below.

With eyes now opened to the latent risk, I inspected the cliff line from Shaw’s to the south end of Crescent. I found several places where tons of rock now hang over natural footpaths and shady resting spots visited by thousands of people every year.

I am of the libertarian creed in civic affairs, the last person in this town who wants more rules.  But we already are so micro-managed by City Hall that I find the current regulations for beachgoers strangely ironic. We adopt elaborate measures to manage non-lethal recreational risks to people at the beach, and protect all other endangered forms of marine life.  Oddly, we fail to address conspicuous lethal risks to human beings.

The signs posted at each public beach access impose an elaborate regime of restrictions to reduce threats to every species except humans. Uniformed police enforce prohibitions and rules of etiquette for dogs, picnics, fishermen and scuba divers.  Still, there is not one word posted about the actual danger of human injury or death.

Maybe I just have rocks in my head, but at a minimum shouldn’t municipal authorities consult a geologist to determine if long term erosion and/or recent rainstorms have increased the level of risk?  That would enable City Hall to determine if there is a duty to warn people of personal responsibility for assumption of risk walking or resting under the cliffs.

The city addressed cliff erosion and falling rock risks as part of the Heisler Park renovation, so we may one day regret failure to uphold the same standard of due care at other public beaches.  An inventory of geologic risk along the boundary between public and private property also would enable the city to determine if there should be an allocation of responsibility between the city and private landowners to make conditions safe.

This is not just about liability in the legal or fiscal sense, but implicates our obligation to take at least as much care to protect human life as we do to manage risk for seaweed, crustaceans, fish, ocean mammals and dogs on the beach.   Once we start posting warnings and debate a no-take zone for sea life, shouldn’t we give just as much thought to a no-take standard for people?

Personally, I am happy to play on the beach without expecting the city to keep me safe, as I have since I was a kid, but that is not the standard the city has adopted with all the rules, regulations and safety standards enforced on the beaches.  I hate to be the one to say it, but having staked out a safety and stewardship role for itself, this may be one of those issues about which City Hall needs to do more instead of less.

Longtime Laguna Beach resident Howard Hills is a lawyer.



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