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By Breeana Greenberg

The Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), a nonprofit that the City of Dana Point is suing over restrictions to a public blufftop trail and preserve, has filed a motion to dismiss the city’s case.

CNLM, which manages the blufftop Nature Trail and Dana Point Preserve, disputes the city’s argument that the nonprofit violated the Coastal Act when it restricted public access by setting new hours during the pandemic, recent court filings state.

In its latest filing asking the court to dismiss the city’s cross-complaint against the center, CNLM claims its coastal development permit (CDP) and Conservation Easement gave it the authority to set the new hours for the public trail.

CNLM stated that “the Conservation Easement clearly authorizes the acts allegedly in violation of the easement, and the City’s interpretation of that easement is not reasonable.”

The city’s lawsuit—filed this past January as a cross-complaint to an initial lawsuit the center had filed last September over fines the city has imposed—claims that changes CNLM made to the hours of operation required a new CDP.

The city this past month filed its own motion to dismiss CNLM’s initial complaint, arguing that the nonprofit did not file a pre-litigation claim with the city, “as required by the California Government Claims Act.”

Hearing dates have been set for Aug. 8 and 15 to discuss those dismissal requests.

The two lawsuits that CNLM and the city filed against each other stem from an argument over access to the blufftop trail that sits on a 29-acre coastal preserve at the headlands.

CNLM is suing the city over fines it imposed on the center for decreasing the hours of operation for the trail. This past January, the city filed its cross-complaint against CNLM for restricting access to the public trail since the start of the COVID-19 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, the city’s lawsuit states. In mid-June of last year, CNLM increased the trail’s hours of operation to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The City of Dana Point’s lawsuit added that the city 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.

Last June, the city issued CNLM a Notice of Violation to encourage the organization to resume regular hours of operation for the trail.

According to CNLM, the city has fined the center $500 for every day that the preserve is not open. In early September 2021, CNLM filed its complaint, appealing the city’s citations for closing the trail. CNLM’s lawsuit seeks an injunction “commanding the City to stop imposing illegal fines on CNLM.”

In its lawsuit, CNLM further argued that the City of Dana Point unlawfully trespassed on the preserve when it unlocked and chained open the entrance to the grounds, providing “uncontrolled public access.”

CNLM’s case states that “although the City’s easement specifically prohibits uncontrolled public access, in 2020 the City opened the locks on two gates to the preserve, using a key provided only for emergency purposes, and then chained and locked the gates open, thereby providing uncontrolled access.”

In a previous statement regarding the city’s lawsuit, CNLM defended its decision to continue restricting the trail’s access, citing scientific studies that have concluded that the sights, sounds and smells of visitors can harm protected species, especially when visitors go off trail.

CNLM has argued that opening the trails from 7 a.m. to sunset puts species that reside at the preserve at unnecessary risk when they are most vulnerable—at dawn and dusk.

On the city’s side of the complaint, it’s seeking the maximum penalty authorized by the Coastal Act: $15,000 per day that access to the trail was restricted. In a late-January press release, the city stated that it is requesting a total of $9.18 million, reflecting the 612 days, and counting, that the trail has not resumed the pre-COVID hours of operation.

Judge Michael Strickroth is scheduled to hear the city’s request to dismiss the center’s complaint on Aug. 8, while the nonprofit’s request to dismiss the city’s countersuit is slated to be heard in court on Aug. 15.

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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