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Illegal gate blocking Laguna Niguel trail unlocked … for now

After weeks of complaints and growing pressure from Laguna Niguel City Hall over an unpermitted fence blocking access to a popular oceanview trail, the gate was unlocked in mid-December on an interim basis by the homeowners association that erected it.

There’s still no final resolution ensuring that the Bear Brand Ranch, a development of multimillion-dollar custom estate homes, will permanently honor its 2001 easement agreement, which mandated that the Long View Trail remain open to the public with access from the north end. That north end entry, where the mile-long path meets the Colinas Bluff and Salt Creek trails, was blocked in November by the association’s new fence.

But ongoing negotiations between the association and the city could lead lead to a resolution that would not only ensure the north gate remains open but also open a gate in Bear Brand Ranch near the south end of the trail. A mapping oversight years ago resulted in a gap of public easement there, which the association took advantage of about three years ago to erect a fence with a locked gate across the trail.

“I’m encouraged with the progress by the city of Laguna Niguel to correctly resolve the situation caused by the Bear Brand Ranch HOA,” said Robert Winters, a Laguna Niguel resident who’s been running on the trail for more than a decade. He expressed both optimism and wariness.

“The north gate is open now, but it’s not over yet,” he said.

Some trail users have suggested a compromise in which the homeowners association agreed to keep both gates open during the day but locked them at night. The current easement calls for the northern access to remain open around the clock.

Laguna Niguel Community Development Director Jonathan Orduna declined to discuss details of negotiations, which led to the temporary opening of the north gate. But he didn’t rule out the possibility of a compromise and has noted in the past that the city wants an easement where the south gate is.

“The city is hopeful that the ongoing discussions could result in the opening of the southerly gate,” he said Tuesday, Jan. 5.

The homeowners association did not respond to requests for comment.

Dodging fines

On Nov. 24, the city issued a notice of violation to the association, citing the lack of a required building permit for the new fence. The notice also pointed out that the fence interfered with the easement. The association then filed an application for permit and temporarily opened the gate, which has allowed talks to continue and allowed the association to avoid fines of up to $500 a day for the violation of city codes.

It’s unclear why the association erected the fence when it did, although the association newsletter in November made clear a desire to keep non-residents out.

“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 said.

Orduna told the Register in December that there didn’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.

While Winters would welcome the opening of gates at both ends of the trail, he worries about the association holding up its end of the deal.

“Who is going to unlock the gates every morning at 6 a.m. when runners start showing up?” he said. “There needs to be some teeth in any agreement. What happens if it’s not unlocked as specified, if they just start leaving it locked? What penalty is there?”

Source: Orange County Register

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