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By Breeana Greenberg

An Orange County court recently ruled in favor of the city’s request that the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM) return public access at the blufftop Nature Trail to pre-pandemic hours until the lawsuit reaches a conclusion.

In a Nov. 3 ruling, Orange County Superior Court Judge Michael Strickroth ordered CNLM to open the public’s access to the trail at the Dana Point Preserve seven days a week from 7 a.m. to sunset—just as it used to be prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With this significant ruling by the Court, maximum daily public access has once again been restored to the Nature Trail and Overlook areas, enabling coastal recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike,” the City of Dana Point said in a press release.

Responding to the court’s ruling via email, CNLM said that “resuming a much more expansive public access schedule is concerning.”

The center stated that it “revised the public access portion of our preserve management plan earlier this year, in light of the large amount of scientific literature demonstrating impacts from the visiting public on wildlife and concern about the ever-increasing numbers of visitors to the Dana Point Preserve pre-pandemic.”

Pursuant to the court’s ruling, the blufftop Nature Trail has, since Nov. 4, been open to the public from 7 a.m. to sunset. The ruling does allow exceptions for temporary closures for “maintenance, conservation and monitoring activities, restoration activities and vegetation removal.”

While the court issued a ruling on the city’s motion to reopen the public’s full access, it has not yet ruled on the merits on either of the lawsuits that both the city and CNLM filed against each other. Strickroth has, however, denied the Center’s request for an “expedited hearing.”

The city this past January filed its lawsuit against the Center, which owns and manages the blufftop Nature Trail and Dana Point Preserve, arguing that the nonprofit violated the coastal act when it restricted public access by setting new hours during the pandemic.

When the center reopened trails in mid-October 2020, CNLM allowed limited public access from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays, court filings state. In mid-June of last year, CNLM updated the trail’s hours of operation, increasing them from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The city’s lawsuit—a cross complaint to CNLM’s own filing from September 2021 to appeal the city’s citations for closing the trail—added that it advised CNLM that the hours did not meet the requirements set on the nonprofit organization for public use and requested that the trail’s operating hours return to 7 a.m. to sunset, seven days a week.

 CNLM previously claimed that its coastal development permit (CDP) and conservation easement gave it the authority to set the new hours for the public trail.

Under the latest court ruling, CNLM is required to inform the city of any proposed closure and the duration and reason for closure. The nonprofit will be required to give the city written notice two business days in advance of any planned temporary closures.

The next hearing on the lawsuit, a case management conference, is scheduled for March 2023.

Breeana Greenberg

Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at bgreenberg@picketfencemedia.com

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comments (1)

  • This is sad reflection on how demands for people based max coastal recreation access trumps wildlife, conservation and efforts to protect habitat. CNLM deserves credit here for its efforts despite the court’s misguided decision. It is mystifying why the Coastal Commission wouldn’t support habitat protection.

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