California Homeowners Fined $1 Million in Seawall Fight

Laguna Beach, California.

(CN) – The California Coastal Commission slapped a Laguna Beach homeowner with a $1 million fine Thursday for remodeling a pre-Coastal Act property in violation of a permit issued by the agency tasked with protecting California’s beaches.

The issue pitted the owners of a seaside mansion against members of the public who use a beach that is eroding at a higher rate because of a seawall. The property owners, Jeffrey and Tracy Katz, built the wall to protect their home from rising seas.

The commission found they violated the conditions of a coastal development permit issued by the commission by doing a “major remodel” of a 1950s home, built before the Coastal Act was enacted.

Located on a bluff above Victoria Beach, the home is worth an additional $11 million thanks to the renovation and was recently appraised at $25 millioin. The Katzes kept the large seawall that protects the house from waves, but also contributes to erosion to such an extent that the beach is basically vanishing.

A permit previously issued by the commission allowed for a seawall to protect the property, but conditionally: the permit expired if the house was ever “redeveloped in a manner that constitutes new development.” Accordingly, the Katzes should have removed the seawall when they remodeled the house.

Seawalls contribute to beach degradation, a heightened concern in light of sea level rise along the California coast due to climate change. They also limit beach access for the public, an issue the commission has prioritized recently.

Critics of the Katzes noted that millions of cubic feet of sand which would otherwise replenish the beach is trapped behind the seawall.

During public comment Thursday, California Coastal Protection Network director Susan Jordan pointed out the architects of the project “cannot feign ignorance” as to what was required of them in order to comply with the Coastal Act. She noted commission staff had “no idea,” about the project because the homeowners never presented their project to the commission as they are required to do.

Banning Ranch Conservancy executive director Steve Ray said the homeowners and architects engaged in “ignorance, arrogance and compliance.”

“There was arrogance displayed by all of them in thinking the law doesn’t apply to what they can do,” Ray said.

Ray said the city of Laguna Beach was also complicit by issuing 45 building permits for the project which should have triggered the involvement of the commission. Jeffrey Katz is a close personal friend of the Laguna Beach zoning administrator.

“This can’t be done without the complicity of the city. The city has encouraged this law-breaking and has continued to think they are not subject to the dictates of the Coastal Act,” Ray said, adding it’s “too bad” the commission could not also fine the city.

Along with a renovation of the house that exceeded the scope of the permit awarded previously by the commission, the homeowners failed to apply for a permit to reauthorize the use of a seawall as required.

Commission staff recommended an administrative fine of $500,000 and immediate removal of the seawall.

But Commissioner Donne Brownsey instead suggested the violation was egregious enough to require doubling the fine to $1 million. Her colleagues unanimously agreed.

“The violators obtained the benefit of the coastal development permit but did not accept the burdens,” Brownsey said.

“The property owner, with intent, sought to not be bound by the laws that regulate development on our coast. We must stand firmly for public access in these cases. We’re going to be having this conversation with lots of different properties … this is the harbinger of the issues we are going to have to face because of sea level rise and the knowledge that seawalls are destructive to our beaches,” Brownsey added.

The Katzes are required to submit a plan for removing the seawall – which must include environmental protections – within 14 days. The wall must be fully removed and the $1 million fine paid within 60 days.


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