Access issues an ongoing debate: More than 75 percent of Tahoe is publicly owned
November 15, 2005
The California Tahoe Conservancy says it will soon put up a sign at the end of Lily Avenue to let people know the road is not an access point to publicly owned Barton Meadow. The agency recently installed a tall wrought iron fence with a thick lock and chain at the end of the street.
At the same time, a 6-foot gap has appeared in a new and similar fence that divides a portion of the Tahoe Keys from publicly owned Pope Beach and surrounding marsh. A gate on the fence was at times locked this summer, allowing only Tahoe Keys property owners through with a card key.
The two instances highlight an ongoing debate on whether and how much the public has access to public land and beaches in Tahoe, or if, at times, private property owners illegally restrict access or intimidate the public.
But land managers and law enforcement officials said if there’s a gate between you and your public land, that’s not necessarily an illegal act.
“If you see a fence there, it’s probably there for a reason,” said Sgt. Brian Williams with South Lake Tahoe Police.
More than 75 percent of the Lake Tahoe Basin belongs to the public. The land lies under the care of several land management agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, California and Nevada state parks departments and the California Tahoe Conservancy.
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The El Dorado County district attorney’s office recently announced it would prosecute trespassers on Tahoe Mountain, where a dispute arose this summer between a private property owner and recreationists.
But sometimes the situation is not so cut and dry.
Conservancy land acquisition manager Bruce Eisner said the public owns the land at the end of Lily Avenue but cannot use it as an access point because of a deed restriction. A shorter fence and thinner chain proved not enough of an obstacle for those wishing to access the meadow and Barton beach this summer.
In 1987, the Harootunian family sold 61 acres near Lily Avenue to the Conservancy through the Trust for Public Land for $1.4 million, including almost 2.5 acres of lakefront property.
The land’s assessed value was more than that amount, so it was considered a partial donation. The deed denies public access at the end of Lily Avenue as long as the Harootunian sisters or their children live in the plots adjacent to Lily Avenue.
Barbara Harootunian declined to comment when contacted by the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
District Attorney Gary Lacy said the public must respect private property rights when accessing public land.
But if people feel they have been illegally denied access to the public land, he said, they may ask a court to determine whether that right exists and if it has been violated.
The police will step in if a conflict arises to maintain the peace, Williams said.
It’s best to contact the manager of the public land to see where there are approved access points, Lacy and Eisner said.
Tahoe Keys manager Ed Morrow said their fence was erected as a deterrent to excessive summertime parking on Aloha and Venice drives. People were using it as a parking area rather than pay the fee at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pope Beach entrance.
“It was really so bad that there were times where it was questionable as to whether any emergency vehicles could get through there,” Morrow said. “A few hundred feet south of the fence, there’s unrestricted access.”
The fence follows the Tahoe Keys property line.
A gap always appears in the fence around this time of year, he said, to create space for snow removal. It was not clear who removed the section of fence.
The Forest Service, which manages Pope Beach and the marsh behind the fence, said it could not comment until its land managers assessed the situation.