On the bayside shore of Point Loma, directly across from Shelter Island, is a secluded and very pretty beach named La Playa/Kellogg. The beach has four private piers owned by residents whose backyards extend almost to their pier’s walkways. The owners dock their sailboats on the piers, which have locked gates and signs reading PRIVATE PIER to discourage unwelcome visitors. Eight years ago, the state coastal commission decided that the private piers – which are built on the public shoreline and extend into public waters – must be opened to anyone who wanted to use them or else should be torn down.
Patty Wyatt moved to her Scott Street home in 1943. She remembers how her father built their pier a year later so the family could go swimming in the bay “without wading through all the guck and grass.” Though a wooden gate prevents unwanted guests from strolling the full length of her 125-foot pier, Wyatt says she doesn’t mind if visitors walk partway out; swimmers in the bay have always been allowed to “dive and play and have a good time” on the dock portion of the Wyatt pier. “Essentially, it’s been open to the public,” says Wyatt, who consider herself “a custodian of a privilege.”
But this friendly and talkative woman is quite firm when it comes to rebutting the coastal commission’s 1980 ruling that the piers be opened up or ripped down. “Don’t forget that you’re talking about my pier,” she insists. “I pay the taxes, I pay the upkeep, I pay the insurance.” Wyatt and the owners of the other private piers also pay the Unified Port District about $700 a year for the right to extend their piers over the public waters, (Those leases expired in 1986, which was the year the coastal commission’s ultimatum was to take effect, but they’ve been extended on a month-to-month basis until the controversy is settled) Opening the piers would be “absolute dynamite,” Wyatt predicts, and invite their destruction by vandals.
Milt Phegley is port coordinator for the local office of the state coastal commission. Phegley helped write a ten-page staff report that recommended coastal commissioners reject a recent request from the pier owners that the commissioners revise their 1980 ruling and allow the piers to remain locked and private. Phegley’s report noted that three of the four structures were built so low to the ground that people walking along the beach can’t get under them. To get around the piers, beachgoers must either swim out into the bay or walk through what appears to be the homeowners’ backyards. This situation hampers public access to the beach, and improving that access of the goal of “perhaps the strongest group of policies in the (decade old) state coastal act,” says Phegley.
Coastal commissioner David Malcolm had tried to diffuse last month’s faceoff between the pier owners and his fellow commissioners by stringing together a compromise that would satisfy everyone. Malcolm says he wants the public to feel welcome at La Playa/Kellogg and believes that too many beachgoers stay away from the area because the very narrow public path that runs along the beach from Talbot Street south to Bessemer Street is poorly marked. Homeowners there have planted and maintained grass that extends beyond their yards to the shoreline, which makes some new visitors think they’d be trespassing if they walked across the grass. Malcolm’s plan, first introduced at an April coastal commission meeting, would allow the piers to remain private if their owners agreed to cut a clearly-marked path through the grass and erect signs advertising the public-access trail. The coastal commission staff discussed Malcolm’s plan with their counterparts at the port commission, which has taken the side of the pier owners. But that compromise fell through last month. Malcolm claims the deal died because “certain (Point Loma/La Playa) homeowners – and I don’t think they’re necessarily pier owners – have juice (political influence), and they got the port commissioners and had them stop” the negotiations. Malcolm now blames the port commissioners for “pointing fingers at us (coastal commissioners) as the bad guys, while in fact they’re the ones who are deceiving the public” by undercutting the compromise.
Dan Wilkens, the port district’s director of community and government affairs, says his agency didn’t initiate the challenge to the coastal commission’s open-‘em-up-or-tear-‘em-down policy on the piers but was simply responding to requests for help from the pier owners and their neighbors. Wilkens says that though the port commissioners didn’t like the coastal commission’s 1980 ultimatum, they were powerless to fight it because state law gave the coastal commission the right to impose such conditions on the state’s port commissions. “We either acquiesced (to the coastal commission) or our port master plan was not approved,” says Wilkens. “And you can’t play high-stakes poker with someone who’s holding four aces.” As for the Malcolm compromise, Wilkens says it was “hurriedly done” and that all parties to the proposal “had different interpretations of what it was.” In the end, Wilkens’ bosses at the port commission pulled out of the negotiations because “they simply wanted to stay the course.” They lost the gamble last month when the coastal commissioners cast their votes against the port’s suggestion that the piers remain private with no trade-offs on public access to the beach.
County Supervisor Brian Bilbray will be involved in any future negotiations over the fate of the piers and pathways. Bilbray, a former coastal commissioner, is a champion of the pier owners. He criticizes the port for what he says is its unwillingness to assume all liability for the piers should they eventually be opened to the public, and he denounces Malcolm’s compromise as “basically extortion” because it demands unfair concessions from the homeowners. Malcolm, he says, is dead wrong to suggest that the La Playa/Kellogg property owners killed the deal because they didn’t want people walking behind their bayview homes. “It’s the Point Loma community groups that want the beach walkway to remain primitive, not a concrete path,” he argues. And the controversy has Bilbray wondering why he ever got involved in the debate. “My wife and I were just sitting there one day, years ago, admiring the piers,” Bilbray remembers. “I was unfortunately dumb enough to tell her that the coastal commission was going to tear them down, and she told me, ‘Brian, you can’t let them do that.’”