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The five-hour curfew is just on a sliver of sandy beach licked by the Pacific Ocean. But its impact stretches up the entire California coast.

No more midnight strolls. No late-night stargazing. No listening to the crashing surf after 11 p.m. and wondering about the meaning of life.But no late-night drunks stumbling to cars, either. No midnight rap music. No sleepless nights as neighbors wonder, is that a woman being raped or just kids shouting in fun?

In California, where the spectacular, 1,100-mile coastline has long been a powerful symbol of optimism and equality, the number of beach curfews is on the rise. One - Coronado's - has even been sanctioned by the California Coastal Commission, the state's open-beach guardian, for the first time in its 22-year history.

Some view the curfews as a badly needed crime-fighting tool. Others say they're just a way for the affluent to keep city dwellers at bay.

"The beach ought to be someplace for people to go at all hours," said Madelyn Glickman, a coastal commissioner from Malibu. "Especially in the city, with all the tensions of urban life, people need someplace to go."

Not near my house in the wee hours of the morning, says Tom Moran, who lives across the street from the Coronado beach with his wife and two children.

"It was a combat zone in our front yard," he said. "It was out of control."

Graffiti appeared on their fence. People too drunk to walk, much less drive, stumbled to their cars, setting off alarms they couldn't stop.

Huge bonfires of trash and old tires fouled the air. Loud pops cracked in the distance - sometimes fireworks, sometimes gunshots.

To get things back under control, in the summer of 1993 Coronado closed roughly half its eight miles of coastline each night.

The coastal commission - created by a landmark 1972 vote that outlawed private beaches, opening every beach to every Californian no matter how exclusive the homes lining it - initially ruled that Coronado's curfew was illegal.

Then it relented, after other beach towns raised an outcry, and Coronado agreed the curfew would cover just a fraction of its beaches - the fire ring area where police say crime is most heavily concentrated.