Coastal Commission Settles 33-Year Fight Over Lagoon Trail

SAN DIEGO (CN) – The California Coastal Commission got a reprieve from its typically hotly contested enforcement of the Coastal Act by homeowners Wednesday when it amicably settled a 33-year dispute over a lagoon access trail in Carlsbad.

The Coastal Act requires that the public be able to access California’s coasts. Developers violated the act by failing to build a public access trail on the bluff top of the Batiquitos Lagoon, which the commission required when it authorized construction of a residential community along the coast in north San Diego County in 1985. Since individual homeowners benefit from the original Coastal Development Permit, they were also on-the-hook for building the trail – and both homeowners and the Rosalena Owners’ Association settled the violations Wednesday.

The commission unanimously approved the cease-and-desist order settling the dispute Wednesday, but commissioner Erik Howell noted, “the owners of the association aren’t the villains in this story, the villains are the developers.”

Once constructed, the trail will provide a connection to the beach and existing trails, opening up access to the lagoon for the public.

The trail project will include signs, public benches, parking spaces and public binoculars at a vista point along the trail.

In addition to building the trail, the homeowner’s association will pay $540,000 in administrative penalties to the nonprofit Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation, which will be used to fund acquisition of property for open space and public access purposes, school programs and other coast-related programs.

The homeowner’s association will also secure an additional easement to connect the trail to a network of existing trails – or face double fines for failing to do so.

Two developers initially failed to build the trail in the midst of financial strife, and previous board members of the homeowner’s association threatened to sue the commission during a time it did not have enforcement staff to ensure compliance with the Coastal Act, enforcement supervisor Andrew Willis said during a hearing in San Diego on Wednesday.

At one point, Carlsbad and Rosalena residents gained momentum to attempt to revise the CDP to eliminate the bluff-top trail requirement, but the commission convinced the city to abandon that effort, he added.

Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement for the commission, said the homeowners are legally responsible since they are successors-in-interest to the permit.

“It is in all of our interest to prevent this from happening in the future,” Haage said.

Willis said in an interview the homeowner’s association received a notice of violation after the commission was able to assess administrative penalties against property owners for non-compliance with the Coastal Act.

Willis said the penalties have been “great for working out longstanding cases.”

Paul Zellerbach, former Riverside County District Attorney and Superior Court Judge, now serves as the president of the Rosalena Owner’s Association. Since he’s lived in the community the past year and a half, he said he helped “shepherd” the settlement with the Coastal Commission.

Zellerbach underscored the “continual progress” needed to come to an agreement.

“You’re dealing with homeowners who have little knowledge or understanding of the Coastal Act and the bureaucracy to work with,” he said.

He called the failure to build the trail a “cloud hanging over the community’s head,” noting it had affected property values and escrows since homeowners didn’t know what to expect.

Zellerbach said even though most of the 75 homeowners in the community have lived there for less than 10 years and “were stuck with a bill” for previous noncompliance, they “understood and accepted responsibility to build the trail … to come to a fair and equitable solution.”

The Rosalena homeowners will next have to submit a detailed construction plan of the trail for commission approval. Zellerbach said they did not have an estimate for how much construction would cost.

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