It’s a short walk — about 100 yards — from the gate of Bonnie Freeman’s More Mesa Shores home to the edge of the sandy colored bluffs and the view of the glittering blue Pacific Ocean beyond.
Freeman, her neighbors and the community enjoy the trail that encircles and runs through More Mesa, located near the southern end of Patterson Road, but lately the area has been drawing visitors who are overstaying their welcome, camping in the indentations and small caves of the bluffs, starting campfires and leaving trash in their wake, she said, as well as risking serious injury.
Freeman maintains she has had a front-row seat to the issue for a while — she has lived in her Austin Road home for 13 years — but that it came to a head on Saturday, when a 19-year-old man suffered major head and chest injuries after being hit with a large boulder during a partial cave-in in the area.
Firefighters said four college-age students were in a cave on the cliff face between the bluffs and the beach when there was a partial collapse. The victim was struck by a boulder weighing 100 tto 200 pounds. Firefighters conducted a rope rescue to access the victim.
His current condition and identity have not been released.
For Freeman, she says she has been seeing groups of young people climb over the fence near her Austin Road home to get to the bluffs, carrying coolers full of food and beer in an effort to spend the night in the caves.
“We’ve been saying a tragedy has been coming for years,” she said.
On the path, which makes its way toward access of the caves, sits a pile of dirty socks and trash. A few yards away, there is a discarded cardboard beer box.
She and her neighbors have tried to stop the entry of the mesa from their properties, even putting concertina wire on the tops of the fence to keep people out, an effort that Freeman suspects garnered resentment and resulted in a spate of graffiti vandalism on the mesa side of her fence.
“The county’s hands are tied because it’s private property,” she said.
The property was sold in 2012 to a Saudi real estate investment group, Kahlid Bin Saud Al Shobily LLC, led by a man of the same name for $25 million.
Representatives from the company could not be reached for comment, and Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. David Sadecki could not confirm whether it had been notified.
Freeman said she wants to meet with the property owner or someone representing him to make a plan of action to deal with security on the bluffs.
“He’s got a liability issue,” she said.
Neighbor Gail Johnson said there is a “steady stream” of people headed to the caves on most nights.
“They take up temporary residence, drink, litter, tag anything they can with a flat surface — signs, plants, the cliffs themselves — and are generally disruptive,” she said.
Johnson said she’d like to see more patrol efforts, to crack down on the cars parked on the streets. She also said she’d like to see an education effort go forward to inform people how to better steward the area.
“Obviously, the owners do not care,” Johnson said.
Freeman met with sheriff and county fire officials about the issue in Aug. 2013, along with a representative of Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district includes the area.
She and other neighbors lobbied in January for “No Overnight Parking” signs to be installed, and since they were put in about two months ago, they’ve made a difference, she said.
“It’s all the little steps we’ve taken that have helped make an impact,” she said.
Wolf told Noozhawk that her office began receiving a variety of complaints from residents of More Mesa Shores about multiple issues, such as the impact of short-term rentals, unpermitted special events and parking, the use of fireworks by a neighbor, as well as the use of the caves on the bluffs.
“We provided the More Mesa Shores Homeowners Association with contact names and numbers of appropriate county staff and encouraged them to host a meeting in their neighborhood,” she said, adding that the HOA did host the meeting.
Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department Lt. Butch Arnoldi, who was part of last year’s meeting, said the department regularly patrols the area and is well aware of the problem.
“People should report any activity because it’s a complaint-driven process,” he said, adding that the calls are a low priority for law enforcement, unless there are other circumstances such as high winds when campfires in the bluffs are going. “This is the third time that I’m aware of that we’ve had cave-ins in the area, including a fatality that occurred over a decade ago.”
The department tries to be proactive about the problem, he said, and encouraged people to report anything they see to the nonemergency dispatch line at 805.692.5714.
In the meantime, Freeman said she wants would-be cave visitors to be aware of the safety risks and cognizant that the ground could give way.
“It’s about the bluffs being insecure,” she said.