OCTA Plan Reduces Public Access at Pacific Horizon Preserve

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Mountain bikers and hikers could lose access to part of the Pacific Horizon Preserve if the California Coastal Commission approves a restoration plan Wednesday from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

OCTA purchased 150 acres of open space north of the Ranch at Laguna Beach in 2015 as part of the Measure M2 Environmental program, which offsets the environmental impacts of freeway projects by protecting large open spaces and the plants and animals that live there, OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter said. The agency plans to repair more than 1,110 feet of existing fence extending east of Balboa Avenue and Barracuda Way and install signs and three security cameras to deter trespassers from disturbing restored habitat.

“Public access to trails in the 150-acre property predates OCTA owning the land,” Carpenter wrote in a prepared statement. “And hikers and mountain bikers will continue to have access to an adjacent trail and will still have access to the property from the same points — Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park, and Moulton Meadows Park.”

Work crews will also close an 843-foot segment of an unpermitted trail coastal commission staffers describe as “duplicative” by collecting prickly pear cactus pads on-site and strategically planting them to deter entry, according to a staff report.

The authorized trail that will remain runs parallel to the segment targeted for closure and then cuts south toward the Ranch at Laguna Beach. A second authorized trail connects the north-end of Moulton Meadows Park with the Coastal Treatment Plant access road and Aliso Creek Trail.

OCTA’s proposal includes the restoration about half an acre disturbed by unauthorized mountain bike trails, berms and jumps that’s home to mixed native scrub and non-native vegetation. Outside of the trail closure, OCTA also plans to remove invasive plant species including artichoke thistle, pampas grass, and ice plant within a 3.86-acre area of the preserve.

The Coastal Commission faces competing priorities in its review of the project. On one hand, it’s charged with protecting the natural resources of the Californian coastline. On the other, it’s a champion of preserving public access to the coast, whether that be on foot, bike, or horseback.

For years, state and federal laws requiring the preservation of sensitive habitat have pitted mountain biking enthusiasts against public agencies and environmental advocates. Laguna Beach resident Penny Elia said she’s almost been run off the trail by mountain bikers during hikes with OCTA staffers at the Pacific Horizon Preserve.

“I’m all for public access as long as the public abides by the rules and that seems, at this time in our society, to be a very difficult concept for people to grasp,” Elia said.

SHARE Mountain Bike Club of Orange County has been a positive force in encourage safe and ethical behavior among bikers, support land managers’ trail stewardship, and interfacing with other trail user groups, according to its website. SHARE’s leadership didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Professional mountain biker Hans Rey said he has ridden the hills of Pacific Horizon Preserve for over 30 years and described it as one of the nicest areas in Laguna Beach.

“The area is not heavily used by mountain bikers, and most of the main trails have actually become smaller [and] more overgrown over the years,” Hans wrote in a prepared statement. “A lot of these so-called trails, have been around for hundreds of years used by deer and wildlife, later native Americans and then the early Laguna settlers used these very trails.”

However, photos included in a Coastal Commission staff report show illegal mountain bike jumps and berms built into the preserve’s hillside.

Melanie Schlotterbeck, vice chair of OCTA’s environmental oversight committee, said the agency’s management of Measure M2 mitigation property is governed by stricter rules about public access than those of public parks. Pacific Horizon Preserve has one of the few trails on OCTA’s mitigation sites that is grandfathered and most trails in these environmental preserves will likely be decommissioned in the next couple years, Schlotterbeck said.

OCTA has been transparent about sharing the Pacific Horizon Preserve Restoration Plan with the environmental oversight committee for years and invited members to tour the site, she said.

“I know OCTA is really trying to be attentive to the fact that coastal access is important,” Schlotterbeck said. “None of the tasks that OCTA is undertaking should be a surprise to anyone at this point.”

The Coastal Commission will discuss the Pacific Horizon Preserve at its 9 a.m. meeting on Sept. 11 in the Newport Beach City Council Chambers.

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