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Battle brews over Tahoe lakeside access

TANYA CANINO, Sun News Service

Longtime Tahoe families are claiming traditions and rights that date to their grandfathers in a fight over access to Lake Tahoe on the West Shore.

Lawsuits have been filed, no trespassing as well as public access signs have been staked and neighbors – including Metallica band member James Alan Hetfield – are in dispute in Tahoe Pines over this issue.

High-profile property rights attorney Larry Hoffman is representing most of the lakefront homeowners who say that the beach is their private property. Placer County, in turn, has hired San Francisco-based law firm Shute Mihaly Weinberger to represent the county’s pursuit to keep the beach open to the public.

For the homeowners in Tahoe Pines and the people who use the beach, the dispute means that their low-key cadence of summer living is threatened.

“There’s a dispute going on. It’s been public ever since I was a little shaver and there hasn’t been any problems,” said Stan Brown, a Washington resident who has annually visited the Tahoe cabin his grandfather bought in 1928.

The Tahoe Pines beach at the end of Grand Avenue is one of those secret Tahoe beaches, little known by visitors and even Tahoe residents, but used for generations by nearby neighbors.

“I’m just heart-broken by the whole thing. What (a beachfront property owner) is protecting himself against is about a half dozen people a week walking all the way down to Blackwood Creek and five of them are cute kids throwing rocks in the lake,” said Robert Blass, who lives in the home his grandparents bought in 1940.

He said the beach has always been public, but really only used by a few families a day and primarily from the 200 homes in the Tahoe Pines subdivision. He learned to swim there and now his grandchildren are doing the same.

On the other hand, Bright Johnson remembers the beach in front of his home as always being private – since his family purchased it in 1932.

“My mother used to bring sand from Kings Beach to it for 10 to 15 years, so we would have a nice beach. My mother used to sit down there,” he points. “It’s all been private for years and years.”

Johnson first came to his Tahoe summer home when he was 5-weeks-old; now he is angry that Placer County says it is a public beach decades later.

What interrupted the fragile truce that allowed the neighbors to ignore each other’s perceptions of public or private for over 50 years is a recent push by Placer County to maintain the public’s right to county easements along Tahoe’s shore.

In the Tahoe Pines’ case, the easement is dated in county subdivision maps in 1911 and 1928. Placer County interprets the maps as dedicating a Lakeside Park; Hoffman interprets the maps as saying there is no longer an easement for a Lakeside Parkway, a proposed road that was never built during the horse and buggy days and erased off the subdivision maps when Highway 89 was built.

Fifth District Supervisor Rex Bloomfield toured four areas in dispute last summer, including Tahoe Pines, to highlight the county’s efforts to keep those beaches open to the public. And last August, the county sent crews to stake the boundaries of the 1,000 foot by 60 foot area in front of 11 homes.

“That triggered the response. Those are old-time Tahoe families. They’ve always viewed it as their private properties. They were absolutely offended when the county came onto it,” said Hoffman.

The county also began publicizing the beach as public, with the California Tahoe Conservancy marking it with a road ballard as an access point to the lake.

As tension grew in 1998, confrontations erupted, resulting in a meeting with the Tahoe Pines Homeowners and Hoffman, Blass said. The Homeowners Association said it had no legal standing to make any agreements over the beach’s use because Placer County owned the beach.

“Hoffman got very threatening about the whole thing. I could see that it was not going to be good. There is no hint that the beach belongs to the Tahoe Pines Homeowners Association. It doesn’t; it belongs to the public,” Blass said.

Seven of the 11 property owners along the beach filed a lawsuit this spring in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, alleging that the county illegally took their property, which is prohibited by the governmental “takings” clause in the Constitution’s 5th Amendment.

In May, those plaintiffs erected no trespassing signs on the beach.

In response, Placer County has filed a lawsuit in state court that asks the judge to make them take the signs down until the issue is resolved, said Chief Deputy County Counsel Jerry Cardin.

That issue might be heard in court on Tuesday, if Hoffman’s motion to dismiss doesn’t prevail.

“We just can’t let this sit in a war of signs, a war of confrontations. Get all the signs down and all the confrontations to end, and let the defendants and plaintiffs litigate in court,” said Cardin.


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