California Beach Watchdog Touts Public Access Enforcement Tool

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (CN) – No parking signs placed strategically by Santa Cruz residents to cordon off public parking for their own use have come down. In Malibu, a chain link fence that runs from a sprawling mansion down into the ocean past the mean high tide line has been removed, restoring access to picturesque portion of Portuguese Bend. In San Diego, an outdoor shower that cut off public access to a beach was demolished.

A local resident and her son skirt the gate at Martins Beach that is a source of contention between the owner of the road and the state of California. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

For the California Coastal Commission, the common thread running through all three beach access restoration actions and more is a result of Section 30821 of the California Public Resources Code, which allows the commission to fine property owners $11,000 per day for impeding public access to the coast.

“The administrative penalty has worked as intended,” said Lisa Haage, the chief of enforcement for the commission, during Wednesday’s February meeting. “It has become a key component of our environmental justice work.”

Passed in 2014, the law gave enforcement teeth to the commission’s effort to bring property owners, whether residential or commercial, into compliance with public access requirements enshrined in the Coastal Act of 1976.

According to Haage, the law’s ability to act as an incentive for owners to resolve issues expeditiously and a deterrent to blocking public access has meant the agency has never resorted to using the big stick given to them by the Legislature four and half years ago.

In that time, the commission has processed a total of 175 cases within the purview of Section 30821, resolving 75 percent without problems. The aforementioned removal of unauthorized no parking signs, fences, sheds and other impediments to access is usually undertaken with relative immediacy after the commission makes clear the $11,000 daily fine is in play, Haage said.

“In most cases, the threat of penalties is enough to secure resolution,” she said.

Of the cases, 23 percent are still in various of the administrative process – though most are headed toward an amicable solution.

But while only 2 percent of the total, the cases where the parties have not been able to agree have captured headlines.

In late 2016, Warren Lent of Malibu was fined $4.1 million by the commission for repeatedly ignoring warnings to remove a gate and an unpermitted shed from public accessway that connected a road to an expansive beach in the exclusive community.

The Lents sued the commission in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming the cease-and-desist order was unconstitutional and issued improperly while also challenging the size of the fine and the way it was imposed.

Judge James Chalfant agreed with the Lents only on one issue, finding the commission acted “somewhat arbitrarily in its decision” to fine the couple $4.1 million. Commission staff initially recommended a fine of $925,000.

However, Charlotte Chestnut, also with the enforcement program, told commissioners Wednesday that the agency was well within its authority to fine the Lents even more given the violations lasted nine years.

The Lents meanwhile have appealed to the Second Appellate District, which has scheduled briefing for this summer.

Another pair of homeowners, Jeffrey and Tracy Katz of Laguna Beach, also sued the commission over Section 30821 regarding a seawall on their property.

The commission told the couple that in order to proceed with a renovation of their house they would have to take down the seawall, which the commission believes traps sand and prevents the nearby beach from being replenished by natural tides.

According to the commission, the Katzes – which sued the commission under the limited liability company 11 Lagunita – ignored the warnings and proceeded with their reconstruction project without removing the seawall.

This past August, the commission fined the Katzes $1 million, double the $500,000 requested by staff. The Katzes filed suit in Orange County Superior Court, saying the fine and the inability of the couple to rent out their home at $70,000 per month amounts to an illegal taking. The case is pending.

Regardless of the two most controversial cases still playing out in the courts, commission officials praised the staff for using their enforcement tool to bring about positive expeditious solutions that furnished or restored public access in places up and down the coast.

“This really shows the skill and effectiveness of administrative penalties in expediting resolution,” said Commissioner Donne Brownsey. “I think we should think about expanding it in the future.”

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