Illegal camping, late-night partying, reckless driving, drug dealing and trash on Bishop’s Beach: It all adds up to a trend that worries Old Town business and home owners. With the growing popularity of Bishop’s Beach has come some abuse that could change the character of the beach.
“I think more is needed for our area down here,” said Bill Ostwald, owner of the old Haas studio and resident on Bunnell Avenue, at a meeting last Thursday at Bunnell Street Arts Center. “I can just see a valuable resource that’s being destroyed. It’s pretty sad when you see vehicles driving through tide pools and beach berms.”
At the meeting, Old Town neighbors met to share stories about problems and suggest solutions, including an idea that might be anathema to longtime Homer residents — limiting vehicle use on the beach. Some of the ideas are:
• Ban vehicles entirely;
• Allow vehicle use by permit; or
• Close the beach at night to vehicles.
Neighbors also talked about other remedies to beach abuse, including landowners being more assertive about private property rights on the beach.
The Old Town Neighborhood Association, a group formed to steer and direct improvements in Old Town, called the meeting. The association worked with the city to get improvements like paving the beach parking lot and adding a pedestrian path on East Bunnell Avenue. Bunnell Street Arts Center also started its Old Town ArtPlace Initiative, a program that uses public art and creative place making to help solve social problems and enhance the community.
A stroll down Bishop’s Beach tells part of the story. Cars are parked at the east end of the beach in an area recommended for pedestrian use.
Next to the mouth of Woodard Creek and west of the Homer Elks Lodge, several tents had been pitched at the bottom of the bluff on private property. Bags of trash scattered by birds littered the camping area.
“The beach is very well used by all age groups and different user groups with different purposes in mind,” said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl in a phone interview last Friday.
The big issue most everyone at last week’s meeting complained about was reckless driving, vehicles on the beach and how to control use.
Robl said during the school year, Bishop’s Beach becomes a hangout for high school age teenagers, with reckless driving a major problem.
“You’ll see a bunch of them racing around there at lunch time, and then right after school it gets hit pretty hard,” he said.
Drivers also seem to be making short trips to and from the beach, Ostwald said.
“It’s a drug problem,” he said. “It’s a perfect spot for them. They can see what’s coming.”
That’s a challenge for police, Robl said. Cops make frequent patrols, but it’s hard to sneak up on the beach.
“They watch for us. As soon as we turn that corner by Two Sisters, everything stops,” he said. “As soon as we leave, everything starts again.”
An ordinance passed last summer would help address the speeding issue. The council appropriated $84,000 for speed bumps and solar-power speed awareness signs to go in next spring. The signs would gauge a car’s speed and flash the number.
Limiting driving on the beach would be a bigger challenge. Historically, Bishop’s Beach has been a highway between towns and cabins. People also drive the beach to collect coal for burning in stoves or to get to setnet sites, activities some said should be by permit.
“Personally, I’d rather see that vehicle access is completely limited to permitted use,” said Asia Freeman, executive director of Bunnell Street Arts Center. “There’s no call for driving on that beach otherwise.”
Robl said it would be hard to enforce a permitting process for vehicles using the beach.
“There might be a middle-of-the-road answer, something like closing the beach during hours of darkness,” he said.
The city prohibits vehicles in areas like Beluga Slough, Mariner Park Slough, the end of the Spit and the east end of Mud Bay. Under a “cooperation, not regulation” guideline set by the Beach Policy Committee in 2003, signs suggest pedestrian access for the east end of Bishop’s Beach — the side to the left from the parking lot. That hasn’t worked, as a hard-packed trail to the east shows.
“We were hoping people would respect that and stay off that,” Robl said. “I think there’s been more vehicle use there than in the past.”
Another issue has been illegal camping on private and city property. Robl said the rules for camping on city property are clear: It’s prohibited except in designated camping areas, like on the Homer Spit. Camping on Bishop’s Beach is illegal — but OK if on private property with permission of the landowner. The tents near Woodard Creek are on private property.
Defining private property in the Bishop’s Beach area can get tricky, but generally city land starts at mean high tide or a tide of 17.5 feet, said City Planner Rick Abboud.
“Anyone camping on private property without the permission of the owner is in violation,” Robl said.
Robl said if landowners have unwanted campers on their property, they should call police. Police have warned several campers of illegal camping.
Landowners also can prohibit partying or making campfires on their property. One family, the Vanns, put logs and boulders near the mean-high tide edge of their beachfront lot near Main Street, with signs that say “private property” and prohibit campfires. They also built a pedestrian trail from Main Street down to the beach. Over the years, vegetation has grown up in the Vanns’ protected area — a dramatic contrast to nearby beaches, noted Adele Person at the meeting.
The Beluga Slough area of the beach also has some U.S. Government property. Technically, it’s not part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, but refuge officials are looking at applying refuge rules to that property, said refuge manager Steve Delehanty. The refuge prefers to work with the city in addressing issues about beach use.
“We want to provide access and enjoyment to the public and their public lands, but we also want to protect the beach berms and the vegetation,” Delehanty said.
No formal proposals on restricting access have been made yet, a decision that ultimately would fall to the city council for city lands. The Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission will be discussing Bishop’s Beach issues at its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.