When trails end: Nipomo landowners and equestrians battle over horseback riding routes on the Mesa

Like countless hikers and horsemen, dog walkers and joggers, Doreen Lopez has been riding and hiking the trails through Nipomo’s eucalyptus groves and along its sandy bluffs for decades. Like untold numbers of property owners, Jim Harrington hoped to enjoy the peace and quiet of country living in the privacy of his own home. Today, the pair embodies the battle over public access to private property that increasingly repeats itself as communities develop.

As rural areas build out and open spaces are fenced, walled, and paved, property owners assert their rights to use their space, while longtime residents mourn the loss of land they have walked, hiked, biked, and ridden for years, even decades.

click to enlarge When trails end: Nipomo landowners and equestrians battle over horseback riding routes on the Mesa
BATTLE ON THE BLUFF: Doreen Lopez has ridden her horse through Nipomo’s trails for decades, but now one homeowner has closed off his property, severing the trail along the edge of the Mesa.

“These people come from the city and want a place in the country, then they fence it off and complain about the smells and sounds of country life,” Lopez said.

In October, Harrington fenced portions of his property after run-ins with equestrian users.

“I’m a nice guy, but I can only be stepped on, walked around, kicked so much,” Harrington said. “I love horses. I ride horses. The whole thing got out of control when one lady wouldn’t listen to me. All I want to do is be legal about it. If they’re going to be snooty and sniping and act like this is their land, I’m old enough to know better. I spent my life working my ass off. Now I want to hide out, be left alone, have peace and quiet.”

In November, representatives of Ride Nipomo Equestrian Trails Alliance met with county staff to discuss options for re-opening the trail, potential easements, and other actions that might return the trail to public service.

“It’s not just for equestrians,” Ride Nipomo President Shelia Patterson said. “We can deal with hikers and bikers, just like we do when we ride Montaña de Oro [State Park]. We can all work together, but we have to have this one vision that we need trails for everyone. It’s about people and health and the kindness people show each other on trails. I’ve never met a mean person on the trail.”

Since 2001, Ride Nipomo Equestrian Trails Alliance has promoted the establishment, conservation, and maintenance of equestrian trails in southern San Luis Obispo County. They adopt trails and perform cleanups along the trails in parks and on private properties where public access is granted.

“We’re not out there to spy on the neighborhood or to trespass. We’re their eyes and ears. We find dump spots and report what we find, we clean it up, and we’ve paid to take thousands of pounds of trash away,” the alliance’s unofficial historian, Barbara Verlengiere, told the Sun.

Alliance members would like to see the preservation of established trails like those along Nipomo’s southwestern bluff, and long-term planning like that used in Norco. That Southern California community, also known as Horsetown, U.S.A, maintains narrow streets, slow speed limits, and 74 miles of trails to promote travel on horseback and horse-drawn carriage.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” said Verlengiere, who left Southern California 35 years ago to settle in then-very-rural Nipomo. “The problem is all these people who come from LA who want it to be like where they came from. They complained about Nipomo Park, the charro arena, horses, cattle, smells. This is the problem. We lost our arena. We’re losing our trails. You live in the country now. Get used to it.”

But such trail system development takes money, planning, and a community dedicated to a common cause. San Luis Obispo County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Nick Franco said that, while the county has documented long-range plans including development of trail systems, those developments depend upon potentially costly land acquisition, system development, and maintenance.

“From the long-range perspective, we want to get all those pieces together, but typically we can’t do that all at once,” Franco said. “What happens is not everyone comes at once, so you get segments that are not usable in easement form. We have to do it a little at a time. This becomes particularly problematic when one person closes it off, then the public doesn’t understand the nuances of land use. All they know is, ‘This is where I’ve always ridden, and now I can’t ride here anymore.’” 

Private land versus public use 

Across the nation, many longtime land users believe they have prescriptive rights to continued access across private property once trails have been established. Private property owners disagree, but courts make the final decision on a case-by-case basis.

“People have ridden these road and trails since before they were paved. These people really are trespassing. Just because the property doesn’t have a house or a fence doesn’t mean it’s public, but it’s been done forever without protest by property owners, and often, even with their verbal consent. Then people start moving in and putting up fences and it kills everything,” Verlengiere said.

Locally, similar issues have arisen on Ontario Ridge, a popular hiking trail between Avila Beach and Shell Beach, where access was blocked when private property changed hands. Development of sections of the San Juan Bautista Trail have been stalled by conflicts with property owners’ rights, and the changing landscapes in Templeton have created stress between longtime users of unofficial trails and property owners.

click to enlarge When trails end: Nipomo landowners and equestrians battle over horseback riding routes on the Mesa
RIDING ALLIANCE: Barbara Verlengiere, pictured left, and Gail Standish are members of the Ride Nipomo Equestrian Trails Alliance, an organization that has promoted the preservation of equestrian riding trails in southern SLO County since 2001.

In Santa Barbara County, public access to Point Sal State Beach via Brown Road was temporarily blocked in 2007 before Vandenberg Air Force Base, the county, and trail users worked out an agreement allowing hikers—but not cyclists, motorists, or equestrians—access.

“The issue is complicated from a legal standpoint. There are subtle different legal explanations that a lot of people just don’t understand,” Franco said. “Essentially, if the public—that’s people, not a government entity—asserts they’ve always been in this place, therefore established the public’s right to use this place, the only person who can make that determination is the court.”

Under California law, land users may establish this prescriptive right by showing the land has been open and notoriously used continuously and uninterrupted for five years. But there are myriad caveats, including the purpose of the use and the proximity to the Pacific shoreline.

“Under prescriptive use, that land doesn’t turn into an easement or anything other than a legal determination allowing use of a person’s private property,” Franco said. “If we don’t have an active easement that connects to something else, and what a private property owner is doing to prohibit access isn’t a permanent structure, we don’t have any basis on which to say, ‘You have to go take that down,’ or, ‘Open it to the public.’”

In 1971, the state Legislature enacted Civil Code 1009 in an attempt to extend public access to recreational space while also protecting private property owners’ rights. Under that code, “use of such property by the public … shall ever ripen to confer upon the public or any governmental body or unit, a vested right to continue to make such use permanently, in the absence of an express written irrevocable offer of dedication of such property to such use, made by the owner … which has been accepted by the county, city, or other public body to which the offer of dedication was made … .”

While SLO County’s Parks and Recreation Element identifies many of these areas as future public access spaces, the recreation list includes several long-term plans with no deadlines for improvement. The Nipomo plan, for instance, maps an array of equestrian and multi-use trails.

“Where lot size allows horses, trail easements around each project perimeter should be provided. Acceptance and maintenance by a property owners’ association or an equestrian group/club shall be implemented before development of the trail,” the plan states.

Similar long-term trail easement plans are on the books in every unincorporated region of the county, but the county isn’t actively pursuing most of them.

“We may identify areas in the general plan as a future trail, but that doesn’t mean it’s coming anytime soon. For us, it’s usually for public access or trail easement,” Franco said. “We either purchase the easement, or they’re donated to the county, or they’re dedicated to the county as a condition of development.”

Case in point: Nipomo’s Woodlands development. Portions of the multi-phase development project, which began in the late 1990s, are surrounded by landscaped, well-maintained, magazine-worthy equestrian trails, where natural sand provides ideal footing after rains, and a good workout during dry months.

click to enlarge When trails end: Nipomo landowners and equestrians battle over horseback riding routes on the Mesa
GROVES COMING DOWN: Nipomo lost around 200 acres of wooded trails after the Woodlands development clear-cut the area, causing Ride Nipomo members concern.

These developments, even with trail easements earmarked for future construction, still mean a sea change for longtime residents.

“The biggest loss of trails has been the Woodlands,” said Lopez, who moved to Nipomo as a child in 1979.

In spite of a specific plan, which called for retaining the area’s woodland setting, some 200 acres of land were clear-cut recently for the final stage of development.

“As ‘The Woodlands’ name would indicate, retaining the site’s rural ambiance through open space and woodlands is a central focus throughout The Woodlands Specific Plan,” the county documents state.

Acres upon acres of entirely denuded rolling sand hills now lie where a dense grove of eucalyptus dating back to the 1800s once hosted many trails.

“I hate to see all this habitat loss, but I guess that’s just the way it’s going to be,” Lopez said. “There are too many people in this world, and they all need a place to live.”

The newly designed neighborhood is slated to include trails around the periphery of the property, as well as “a network of internal trails connecting the various uses planned within the project,” but aerial mapping shows that the development is far from the wooded setting initially planned. 

It’s a matter of respect

“I bought this place knowing I have to give up a 25-foot swath for a proposed bluff trail whenever the county takes the easement,” Harrington said. “At this point, the way these people have treated me, this trail will stay closed until the county walks up with a piece of paper telling me I have to open it.”

The retired nurse said he didn’t mind people crossing his property until a couple of equestrian users treated him and his property disrespectfully.

“I’ve yet to see a horse person get off to shovel a suitcase of crap and carry it away, but if I were to walk up their driveway with my dog, and he crapped, I guarantee they’d come unglued,” Harrington said.

click to enlarge When trails end: Nipomo landowners and equestrians battle over horseback riding routes on the Mesa
SHALL NOT PASS: One Nipomo landowner closed off his property, which was home to a section of open trail for decades before his purchase of the land, claiming that riders were disrespectful.

He added that they complained about his dogs running on his own property. They left manure on his paved driveway. They’ve called him names and yelled at him, and even posted disparaging remarks about him on social media, he said.

“I was doing really well, but word got out you can’t go ride Nipomo because I closed my property, and they started slandering me. They’ve called me ‘asshat,’ ‘asshole,’ but I’ve never met not one of them,” Harrington said.

When a woman was wandering on his property, away from the proposed easement the county may eventually take for recreational users, he asked if he could help her.

“She was entitled. She yelled at me, told me there was nothing I could do to help her, that she’d been walking here for years and was allowed. When I told her it was a private street, she got snotty,” Harrington said.

And that was the final straw.

“My wife and I were looking forward to a place to enjoy the peace and quiet. It’s been anything but,” Harrington said. 

Contributor Jennifer Best can be reached through Interim Managing Editor Joe Payne at [email protected].

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