(CN) — Private property owners in Southern California were fined $1.7 million on Thursday for violating public access to Newport Beach for decades by creating illegal yard extensions of their beachfront properties onto the sandy public beaches.
The city of Newport Beach agreed to cover at least $500,000 in costs to remove illegal landscaping, grassy lawns and walkways encroaching on public beach access installed by beachfront homeowners at the ritzy city’s Peninsula Point.
While the city will not pay an administrative penalty, it is on the hook to cover cleanup costs to restore the beach and dune habitat at four city-owned properties, which the city estimates will cost at least $500,000.
The encroachments are on city-owned property, but were installed by private property owners at 60-70 adjacent residences immediately inland from the city-owned beach.
By coordinating remediation, the beach restoration along Peninsula Point will be completed in one project — with a completion deadline by 2023 — rather than a piecemeal approach had all 33 property-owner violators worked out separate deals to get in compliance with the Coastal Act.
The illegal privatization of Newport Beach’s beach lingered for decades, with the city seeking the Coastal Commission’s blessing in its 1991 Land Use Plan proposed amendment which would have allowed the private property encroachments on the public sand at Peninsula Point to remain in place.
The Coastal Commission rejected that proposal as well as a recently revived amendment in July 2019 that would have had the same effect as the 1991 proposal.
No coastal development permit has ever been issued by the Coastal Commission to allow for the beach encroachments, yet a slide show during the Thursday meeting by enforcement supervisor Andrew Willis showed properties with elaborate yards, patios, outdoor living rooms and landscaping where sand dunes, which constitute environmentally sensitive habitat area, should be.
The area is also one of a handful of wintering sites for the Western snowy plover, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Willis said Thursday the cumulative loss of public beach due to the private yards encroaching on the sand is about 1¼ acres.
He said private encroachment on public beaches coupled with sea level rise compounds the loss of public beaches caused by climate change.
Violation letters were sent to property owners in 2012, but Coastal Commission efforts to resolve the encroachments did not ramp up until commissioners rejected the city’s Local Coastal Program amendment last year.
Attorney James McGee, representing 20 of the homeowners, said many homeowners were willing to remedy the situation but waited until the city requested an amendment last July to allow some of the encroachments to remain in place.
McGee said some of the homeowners “were innocent” because they did not install the encroachments themselves and were not adequately informed before they purchased their properties.
“They have been caught in a very unfortunate circumstance but are willing to participate in removing the encroachments,” McGee said.
Newport Beach Community Development Department director Seimone Jurjis told commissioners the city is “ready to move forward and restore public beach.”
“For the past year, we have been working diligently with the enforcement staff and the residents in finding an equitable solution to the violation. We are very happy with Coastal Commission approval of the consent orders today. We look forward to restoring the beaches back to the public’s use,” Jurjis said in a statement to Courthouse News.
Jennifer Savage, California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said during the meeting the homeowners encroached on the public beach “with a sense of entitlement most of us would be hard-pressed to fathom.”
Savage said some of the illegal yards extended as much as 80 feet onto the beach.
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