The City Council accepted petitions Tuesday that supported public beach access through private property at Rockledge, but refrained from making any comments on the emotionally charged issue.
City Manager John Pietig advised the council to button its lips because of a lawsuit filed by a Rockledge resident against his neighboring property owner, Mark Towfiq, and the city.
An earlier version misspelled Mark Towfiq's last name.
However, officials listened to speakers for and against prescriptive rights to gain access to the ocean, referring to public rights acquired over private lands through use.
"Thirty-two residents and visitors to Laguna Beach have signed Coastal Commission, staff-approved affidavits, certifying that they have used the property for access to their coastline," speaker Fred Talarico said. "We have averaged an additional five people coming forward each week since the last council meeting. Over 3,000 people have signed the petition stating 'I support Rockledge access.'"
They are all trespassers, Tawfiq countered.
"This property has always been protected by a gate at the ocean and iron gate in front of the property," Tawfiq said. "If you are the public, you have been trespassing if you are going to use this property to get to the ocean. There is no other way around it."
The issue of public access through Tawfiq's property was raised at the July 12 meeting by Eric Jessen, former chief of the county's Harbors, Beaches and Parks department.
Jessen, who did not speak this week about Rockledge access, said at the July meeting that he asked the city to intercede with the California Coastal Commission on behalf of access. He said the commission had failed to take timely action on an appeal of city-approved development on the parcel through which beachgoers had traditionally traversed and lost jurisdiction.
"It is important to note that the director of the Coastal Commission said his staff had made an error," Talarico said.
Tawfiq said that even if the appeal had been heard, the commission staff was recommending a finding of no substantial issue, meaning butt out.
"I have a copy of the Coastal Commission staff report for your records," Tawfiq said. "The staff did not find any evidence of public access and actually stated there was lot of evidence and letters from all the neighbors at Rockledge that no public access had ever exited there."
Some of them spoke Tuesday.
"I never saw any public going through there," said Joan Hutchins, daughter of Constance and Andrew Morthland, who once owned the north end of Rockledge and Moss Point Estate.
Roger Jones, owner of Villa Rockledge, echoed Hutchins.
"There was never access," Jones said.
Besides which, he said, there is no beach at Rockledge.
"It is mostly rock," Jones said.
Tawfiq said the real reason behind the public access campaign is to get him to change the proposed design of his house to satisfy a neighbor.
"We met with Mr. Tawfiq," said access proponent Aaron Talarico. "We offered solutions, but there was never any compromise on the other side."
Tawfiq said that he was told the lawsuit would be dropped and the public-access campaign stopped if he accepted any one of the designs presented to him by Fred Talarico.
"This is a war between neighbors," said resident Donald Clurman.