Coastal Commission Cracks Down on Blocking Beach Access

VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – The California Coastal Commission flexed its enforcement muscles Thursday and fined an upscale beachfront restaurant $500,000 for blocking public access to a popular San Mateo beach, and asked its staff to crack down on repeat violators of the Coastal Act.

In addition to the hefty fine, La Costanera, a Peruvian restaurant overlooking Montara State Beach, cannot add any unpermitted construction, must not open before 5 p.m., and must remove an upper, unpermitted patio and restore the area. Commissioners unanimously approved the cease and desist order at their Thursday meeting.

The restaurant must also seek the commission’s approval after the fact for a lower patio. If the commission denies approval, that patio also must be removed. If the restaurant violates the cease and desist order and builds any unpermitted development, it will be fined $10,000 a day.

The commission notified the restaurant of its compliance violations in April 2011 and has gone back and forth with the property owners since.

The unpermitted patios expanded the restaurant’s footprint by 2,100 square feet, bringing with it an increased demand on parking which was already scare at the beach. Beachgoers park on both sides of Highway 1 and run across the busy roadway to get to the beach. The problem was exacerbated when the restaurant held private events during the day, in violation of its coastal development permit which stipulates it cannot open before 5 p.m.

The commission warned the restaurant in 2015 that it had the power to levy enforcement fines.

A handful of San Mateo residents submitted letters in support of the cease and desist order, as did the county Planning and Building Department and the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks.

As part of the settlement, La Costanera agreed to build and maintain a public access trail to the beach and install signs, a water fountain, benches, bike racks and a new public viewing area.

La Costanera’s attorney told commissioners the settlement “publicly demonstrates their commitment to protection of coastal resources.”

Commissioner Carole Groom called the violations a “longtime problem.”

“It’s just not been a violation of access to the beach but has also been a dangerous situation with people running across Highway 1 or driving crazily. It’s a beautiful place for families to spend time but can be rough when there isn’t enough parking,” Groom said.

The $500,000 penalty follows the commission’s unprecedented decision late last year to fine a property owner $4.1 million for blocking public access to San Flores Beach in Malibu.

Before discussing the cease and desist order for La Costanera, commission staff gave a report on what they called “success stories” in Malibu, where private property and business owners had blocked public access by putting up “No Parking” signs, installing and locking unpermitted gates to public beaches and even installing a fence that jutted into the ocean.

No penalties have been imposed on those violators, because commission staff said the property owners took down the signs and fences when they were warned of the beach access violations. But some commissioners were dissatisfied the commission declined to fine some property owners, especially repeat offenders who were repeatedly warned by the commission.

“Why aren’t they getting fined?” Commissioner Erik Howell asked. “You don’t work for free. I think there does need to be some fining, otherwise why not just put up the no parking sign as soon as you walk away? Sometimes to get there you have to be cruel to be kind.”

Staffers told commissioners that usually the threat of an administrative penalty is enough of a deterrent to get property owners to abide by the Coastal Act. They said that avoiding fines and hiring legal counsel for both parties helps to get violations resolved quickly, which is the goal in ensuring California’s coastline is accessible to everyone.