Does the public have a right to use Shelter Cove in Pacifica?

Posted by on Tue, November 27, 2007

Copyright © 2002-2005 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project.
Shelter Cove. Click for a larger version and location at the California Coastal Records Project.

Shelter Cove, just south of Linda Mar, was a popular public bathing spot in Pacifica for decades. Lately, it has been blocked by "No Trespassing" signs.  Pacificans have been tracing the history of the spot to prove to the Coastal Commission that it has historically been a public access point to the coast. Pacifica Riptide has a page devoted to the history of the use of the spot.

The County Times is reporting that the public may be entitled to access to the beach after all.

Under California law, all beaches are actually public property — but only to the mean high tide line, which usually means the wet area of a beach. The law is primarily meant to protect boaters who pull up on beaches, but also applies to swimmers and people walking in that area. Adding a public easement to a beach means ensuring public access to it, in this case along a pathway into Shelter Cove.
Lizelle Saure, a Shelter Cove resident for over four years, says people regularly visit the beach on weekends and are often told to leave.

"They litter, they chase the birds. On sunny days, it happens all the time," she said.

The steep pathway residents use to get to their homes is the same roadway cars used to take to get to the beach in the 1930s and 1940s, but it is washed out and is difficult to walk on.

"We’d be so endangered by having people on our paths at night," Saure said.

If the Coastal Commission staff finds there is enough evidence to warrant a legal case, it won’t begin for at least a year. Only after it gets a ruling from a judge, can the Commission negotiate with the land’s owner.

You can read about beach access rights on the Coastal Commission’s website. Be sure to read Julia Scott’s excellent story at the County Times site for the full details.


Yesterday’s SF Chronicle had an interestng story of a similar case taking place at Stinson Beach.

Link to story:

Below are some great quotes from the story.

“I consider the fact that the Seadrift Homeowners Association is kicking people off the beach as thuggery.”

—Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas

“It’s a collection of very high-profile, affluent folks who have done everything they can to limit and intimidate the public from using that property over many, many years….Seadrift is the Bay Area’s own little Malibu where we’ve got affluent people attempting to limit shoreline access to the public. It’s about time somebody put a stop to it.”

—Mark Massara of the Sierra Club

Comment 2
Wed, November 28, 2007 5:07pm
Carl May
All my comments

The legalities may be similar, but the people living in Pacifica’s Shelter Cove are far from high profile and affluent.

In the meantime, anyone who wants to visit the place can simply walk just above the waterline around the point during a low tide. It’s a bit of a scramble on the rocks in places, but the distance is less than a half mile to get to the cove. This is the route to use to get to Pedro Rock south of the cove and to the beaches at the base of Devil’s Slide (if you plan your tide and time carefully and are prepared for rock-hopping and usually a bit of climbing). Easier and quicker is to know someone who lives in Shelter Cove and visit them.

Carl May

Comment 3
Fri, November 30, 2007 10:43pm
Frank Long
All my comments

I became involved in this issue back in New England, when day visitors would come onto a members-only beach. As a board director for one of those private facilities, such as the one mentioned in the Stinson Beach article, it was incredibly frustrating. Since security guards prohibited them from accessing our facility itself, for a number of reasons, including individual unit security, these day visitors would then defecate in the sand dunes, almost expecting us to provide them with their own rest room.

As far as enforcement within a citizen’s littoral and riparian rights, no one could conveniently establish where the high tide line was. Legally, for us, we would have had to engage an extensive engineering study to ascertain the average high tide values over a metonic cycle of roughly 18.6 years. I’m not sure what California uses as this basis, since all states (except Florida) have territorial control out to their three mile limit and there are a variety of legal interpretations of the term “High Water”, but this right to access between the high and low water lines has been an integral part of Justinian Law for almost 2,000 years.

It was an impossible situation. It isn’t that dissimilar to the article elsewhere on Coastsider about mountain bikers being denied access in La Honda. As with any user group, there are both responsible and irresponsible users, and unfortunately the irresponsible element usually spoils it for everyone. They think the world is somehow one big personal ash tray or, as was the case back east, they would defecate in the dunes where small children would often play, leave used diapers and beer cans on the beach, and think nothing of having a drunken football game on a crowded beach where they’d be stepping on other people’s beach blankets and spraying sand on others as they ran. On the other hand, we also saw people who used the beach and meticulously cleaned up after themselves, and no one really minded their presence. So it is no wonder why some resident groups try to exclude the public, because there is no way to legislate common sense and courtesy. I think, somewhere in that almost 2,000 years, the line between having functional access to the ocean for reasons of agriculture, sustenance, or commerce, and partying on the beach with little regard for others, has become seriously blurred.

Here is an excerpt of the boundary complexities:,M1

In section 7-3, “Boundaries of Public Trust Waters” (pg 176) are listed variations in different states’ interpretations, but unless the beach has been restricted for national security reasons or whatever, people, whether responsible or irresponsible, are generally entitled to use that littoral corridor. After that, the big issue becomes restriction of either pedestrian access or vehicular parking for those areas.

Frank Long