In a city renowned for its numerous off-road footpaths, Robert Winters is among those who call Laguna Niguel’s Long View Trail — with its stunning ocean views — the most beautiful.
So it was a rude encounter when he was on his regular trail run in early November and found a chain link fence with a locked gate and “No Trespassing” sign blocking the trail at the north end of the Bear Brand Ranch neighborhood. That’s where you can turn off the Colinas Bluff and Salt Creek trails, and traverse the Long View Trail as it winds alongside the multimillion-dollar, custom estate homes.
“It’s a beautiful public trail and someone’s stealing it,” said Winters, a 53-year-old retiree who lives nearby. He said the city’s trails were one reason he chose to move to Laguna Niguel 11 years ago and the Long View Trail quickly became his favorite.
“What the homeowners association has done is not right,” he said. “I’ve been on that trail with my father, my friends, my family. I’ve been on that trail probably 500 times. (Developers) agreed to that easement so the city would allow those houses to be built. Now, the people who live there can use the trail — but they don’t want the general public to use it.”
It’s unclear why the development, which signed off on the easement in 2001, decided to erect the fence now. But it’s not the first time Winters and others have been stopped in their tracks on the mile-long trail.
About three years ago, the homeowners association erected a fence where the southern end of the of trail entered Bear Brand Ranch.
At that time, the city got plenty of complaints from those who used the trail. So officials studied the zoning maps and determined there was a small gap between easements for the trail, right where the fence had been installed. In other words, the fence and its locked gate were legal.
“It was an unfortunate oversight at the time of development,” said Jonathan Orduna, the city’s community development director.
“The HOA, which does not want to allow public access through there, took advantage of that oversight. The city has tried to engage the HOA several times to address that but has been unsuccessful.”
However, there’s no such loophole at the north end of the community, a more convenient and popular entry point to the trail for the public.
“This (development) document clearly grants an easement there,” Orduna said Tuesday, Dec. 1. “That chain link fence clearly cuts off access to the public trail where there is an easement.”
Slow to respond
After running into the new fence last month, Winters called the homeowners association management for an explanation. He’s yet to hear back.
He also brought up the issue on the Next Door web page, where his screen name is Nathan Dash, and found he was hardly alone with his frustration. He called the city to complain and encouraged others to do the same. Orduna confirmed that the city has received “multiple” calls.
On Nov. 24, the city issued a notice of violation to the association for the new fence being constructed without a building permit. The notice also mention that the fence interfered with the easement. By the end of the month, the homeowners association still hadn’t responded to the city. Winters also contacted the Orange County Register, which began phoning and emailing the association management on Tuesday, Dec. 1, for its side of the story.
If the issue isn’t resolved by Friday, Dec. 4, the city could begin issuing citations with daily fines of up to $500.
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, the association finally responded to the city and said it would be submitting a request for a building permit for the fence by early next week.
“They have not committed to a removal of the fence, but they haven’t said they wouldn’t,” Orduna said Thursday, Dec. 3. “The easement issue would need to be remedied before the city would issue a building permit.
“We’re hopeful we’ll find a solution.”
The association has not responded to Register inquiries.
A fight ahead?
Since June, association newsletters, publicly available online, have offered monthly updates on the plans — and then, construction — of the new fence.
“Additional fencing has been installed on the northern edge of our community preventing trespassers from accessing our trails and subsequently walking onto our streets,” the newsletter reported in November.
Orduna says there don’t appear to be security issues.
“If you were to compare this to other neighborhoods, there’s no indication that there’s a higher level of criminal activity,” he said.
Winters said the trail through the community is among the cleanest in the city, with no graffiti and virtually no trash. He added that a possible compromise could be to lock the gate at night and open it each morning. Orduna wouldn’t rule that out.
“The city is always eager to work with community representatives and is open to creative solutions,” he said.
But while Orduna said he is optimistic a solution will be found, Winters anticipates a battle ahead.
“I do not trust the HOA and I would not take them at their word,” he said Thursday. “I think they’re going to try to be sneaky and continue to block the easement.
“But I don’t think they have a leg to stand on legally.”
Source: Orange County Register