VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – The California Coastal Commission put the city of Malibu on notice regarding its residents’ penchant for going to great lengths to keep the public away from beaches that belong to the people of California.
In an unprecedented move, the commission voted to fine a property owner $4.1 million for persistently refusing to remove a locked gate and other items that keep the public from accessing the San Flores Beach in Malibu.
“This case is egregious to me and it represents an attitude in Malibu that characterize these beaches as their own backyard,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said before the vote was taken.
The fine, levied against Warren and Henny Lent during Thursday’s commission meeting, represents the first time the quasi-judicial body used its newly vested authority to use administrative fines to bolster beach access.
In 2014, then-state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins pushed through a bill that vested the commission with the authority to fine property owners who continue to block public access.
The Lents were particularly in error, according to commission staff.
Lisa Haage, the commission’s director of enforcement, said the Lents were first notified that their fence and staircase were located on a public easement owned by the Coastal Conservancy in 2007.
The commission asked the Lents to remove barriers to San Flores Beach. The beach, which some members of the public characterized as one of the choicest in California, is a three-mile beach on a 27-mile stretch of coastline owned by the city of Malibu.
Currently, there are no public-access points to San Flores Beach – forcing surfers, fisherman and other recruiters to go to adjacent beaches and hoof it for miles to get access.
Particularly incensing to the commissioners is the fact that the Lents ran the property as a short-term rental, actively advertising access to a so-called private beach to justify rents that ran as much as $9,000 per week, $32,000 per month or $1,000 per night.
“These people were making an income off of privatizing a public resource,” said Commissioner Mary Shallenberger.
Commissioners appeared keenly aware that the fine against the Lents was not only to punish them for their intransigent behavior, but to set a precedent and a warning to other property owners that blocking public access to the California coast will no longer be tolerated.
“Other property owners will know what to expect based on what we have done,” Commission Chair Dayna Bochco said.
Initially, commission staff recommended a fine of $925,000. But commissioners said the total was too slender for such “blatant disregard” of the commission’s rules.
“These folks have had since 2014 to resolve this,” Shallenberger said. “The Legislature authorizes us to fine them the full amount of $8.4 million. For such a flagrant violation and the first time we are levying this fine, I am not going to be supportive of a fine anything less than 50 percent of the allowable fine.”
The commission finally settled on about 50 percent of the allowable fine.
Arthur Block, an attorney hired by the Lents, said that the family was being unfairly singled out by the commission, particularly since they bought the property with the gate and staircase already constructed.
“They are not getting the money the staff is claiming they are getting,” Block said during the proceedings. “My client told me they can barely make their mortgage.”
The commission didn’t buy it.
“They claim they are losing money, which I really doubt,” Bochco said. “I assume they are making a nice return and part of that return comes from the fact that they advertise and make money off the fact that people believe they have a private beach.”
While much of the focus was on the Lents, several people said the couple is emblematic of a generalized attitude in Malibu where wealthy property owners have sealed off vast stretches of the coast.
Of the 29 vertical public easements from roadways to the coast, 20 of them are closed.
“It is very hard for people to access these beaches,” Vargas said during the meeting. “It is particularly so for inner-city residents and people of color.”
Vargas said he would like the commission staff to explore using fines to rectify the lack of public access, directing Haage to use a portion of the fine to construct a public stairway that could open up access to San Flores Beach for the first time in years.
The commission and other California bodies have been particularly vigilant when it comes to the people’s access to the coast.
The State Lands Commission said this week it will formally explore using eminent domain in its battle with Vinod Khosla, a San Mateo County billionaire who has restricted public access to Martens Beach.
The Coastal Commission also accepted a $950,000 fine for the Malibu Inn, which prevents access to Carbon Beach.
On Wednesday, commissioners denied the city of Dana Point’s request to have retractable gates installed at the entrance point to the Strand Beach.
“With this decision, commissioners showed that the state will not tolerate those who attempt to make our public beaches a private playground,” said Jennifer Savage, the Surfrider Foundation’s California policy director. “They affirmed the work of enforcement staff, showed commitment to the Coastal Act, gave warning to potential future violators and acted as champions on behalf of all the people of California.”