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New Cave Landing cleanup effort aims to encourage safety without trampling on the area's unique personality 

Brian LoConte has been a frequent Pirate's Cove visitor since he first moved to San Luis Obispo County in the late 1970s. He fell in love with the county's most distinctive beach then for the same reasons he and many other community members still love it today: its undeveloped beauty, 24/7 access, and funky personality.

click to enlarge CHANGE AND COMPROMISE San Luis Obispo County has plans to clean up Pirate's Cove and Cave Landing, while maintaining the area's quirky character. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CHANGE AND COMPROMISE San Luis Obispo County has plans to clean up Pirate's Cove and Cave Landing, while maintaining the area's quirky character.

Even its south facing orientation has its benefits, LoConte said, allowing for around-the-clock tanning on all sides. Throw in the beach's long history as a clothing-optional destination, and all parts of the body can get some sun, too.

"I like getting a real good tan," LoConte said with a laugh.

He also likes playing volleyball, gazing at the stars from the always open Cave Landing parking lot at night, and—although Pirate's Cove is notorious for being somewhat lawless—he appreciates the lack of regulation to some extent. He doesn't party much anymore, he said, but he does occasionally enjoy a cigar on the beach.

"And it's just nice to not have Harbor Patrol or somebody coming up to you and saying, 'Sir, can you put that out?'"

According to a county staff report from the SLO County Board of Supervisors March 16 meeting, Pirate's Cove, Cave Landing, and those who frequent the area are often the source of complaints to law enforcement and public officials. The area lacks trash bins and bathroom facilities, ditches throughout the dirt parking lot make it difficult for cars to maneuver, and insufficient enforcement and 24-hour access mandated by the California Coastal Commission make it a popular spot for unpermitted late-night fires and overnight camping.

Recently, according to county staff, semi-permanent encampments of tents and RVs have become increasingly common, along with graffiti, trash, human waste, and discarded drug paraphernalia littering the parking lot and trails.

Now, ongoing cleanup efforts in the Cave Landing parking lot aim to strike a balance between the park's quirky personality and some semblance of regulation and public safety.

On March 16, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to integrate Cave Landing into the county park system, allowing the county to enforce regulations and protections there that are followed at other local park facilities. The board also voted to put nearly $499,000 in public facility fees, $129,358 in general fund revenue, and a $250,000 California Coastal Conservancy grant toward cleaning up the trails and parking areas.

The county has already made some progress in removing graffiti and picking up trash, but it's still in the process of obtaining a building permit for the parking lot. Staff say they hope see the project completed no later than December.

LoConte hasn't always been a fan of the county's attempts to tamp down rowdy activities.

In 2013, LoConte appealed an early proposal to develop Cave Landing, opposing the project's plans to pave the parking lot with asphalt, which he said would have reduced available parking, ruined the rustic aesthetic of the site, and required the installation of stormwater runoff systems.

He opposed a revised plan in 2016, which would have included the installation of a gate to close the parking lot at night—an attempt to discourage crime and overnight camping. Pirate's Cove and Cave Landing, he said, are two of the few coastal public lands community members can still access at night, and many residents don't want to lose that because of a few overnight campers.

"I don't know that it's a bad thing to have people occasionally do that up there," LoConte said. "We certainly don't want it to get to the point that it's constant and dense."

The current project, however, has LoConte's full support.

Included are plans to collect trash at Cave Landing and install trash bins, level and fill the parking lot with gravel, clean up existing graffiti, and hire an additional park ranger to help maintain the site. Informational signage will remain limited and rustic, Pirate's Cove will continue to be a clothing-optional beach, and community members will still be allowed 24-hour access.

"It's great," LoConte said.

Of course, not everyone agrees.

At the March 16 Board of Supervisors meeting, Avila Beach resident Lucinda Borchard said the latest attempt to control Cave Landing doesn't go far enough.

"There's no way to describe the amount of traffic that's going up and down there. The encampment of homeless people is completely disgusting. Of course, you know, they're not using restrooms," Borchard said at the meeting. "So it's a travesty on the environment itself. I urge a ranger near at least during daylight and closing the gate at night because what's going on up there I'm sure is illicit drug issues plus a lot of other things."

Since 2019, there have been more than 750 calls to the SLO County Sheriff's Office for service related to Cave Landing and Pirate's Cove, according to Public Information Officer Tony Cipolla, including 204 calls so far this year alone. Complaints, he said, often revolve around vandalism, intoxication, theft, and noise. This year, there have also been reports of rape, brandishing weapons, and domestic violence.

Kurt Bretcher lives in an RV and parked overnight at Cave Landing until just recently. He said the people who live there aren't typically the source of crime. Instead, residents self-regulate, he said, helping partiers and hikers during medical emergencies, cleaning up trash left behind by beachgoers, and calling law enforcement when needed.

But shortly after the cleanup project was approved in March, staff from SLO County Parks, the Sheriff's Office, 5Cities Homeless Coalition, and Transitions Mental Health Association made contact with several Cave Landing encampment residents to move the camp out and provide information about other shelter services. After the agencies made several more trips out to Cave Landing, remaining campers voluntarily cleared out of the site on May 13.

But Bretcher said he and others feel like they're being unfairly punished and pushed out of their homes over problems caused by others.

SLO County Parks Director Nick Franco said there's no way to make everyone happy, but it's been his responsibility for the last several years to find an adequate compromise.

"With the parking lot, everybody agrees that its current condition isn't good," Franco said. "The solution for fixing that is where it gets trickier."

After years of work with community members and other stakeholders, Franco landed on the current iteration of the cleanup project, which transitioned Cave Landing from vacant county land to a designated natural area, a category of county park similar to areas near Lopez and Santa Margarita lakes. Natural areas are less developed than other parks, but still include things like wheelchair accessible parking spots and viewing areas, which Franco said are features coming soon to Cave Landing.

There won't be public restrooms, but there will be trash cans and some limited informational signage. And now that Cave Landing is a park, regular park rules—like prohibitions on overnight camping and fires—can actually be enforced.

At the same time, Franco said Parks and Rec folded the clothing-optional feature of Pirate's Cove into the park's permit, making it almost impossible to change. Twenty-four-hour access to the site will continue indefinitely.

"So we're trying to incorporate the culture that's out there now and the feeling of that place," Franco said, "but remove the criminal activity that occurs at night, the graffiti, the excessive trash." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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