For decades, some Malibu property owners have made it hard for the public to reach public beaches.
On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission fined two of those property owners more than $5.1 million for denying surfers, sand castle builders, kite flyers, sun bathers, yoga enthusiasts and other beachgoers access to the sand that is theirs by state law.
In one of those decisions, the commission had battled for nine years with Dr. Warren M. Lent and his wife, Henny, before unanimously approving Thursday's cease-and-desist order for the couple and fining them about $4.2 million for diverting a public easement to private use at an expensive oceanfront rental they own at Las Flores Beach.
Commissioners described the Lent case as "very egregious" and a "flagrant violation" of state law because the couple had long refused a commission request to remove an unauthorized gate, fence, stairway and deck that blocked an easement required by a coastal development permit issued to a previous owner. The fine was far more than the $950,000 recommended by the agency's staff.
"This represents an attitude we often see in Malibu — that the shore is our private backyard," said Commissioner Mark Vargas, who made the motion at Thursday's hearing for a $4.185-million fine. "It's clear that they are dragging this on as long as they can and damaging the public's right to use the beach."
In the second action, commissioners approved an amicable settlement with the owners of the Malibu Beach Inn at Carbon Beach, which is known as "Billionaires' Beach."
Under the agreement, owners Simon and Daniel Mani, who are West Hollywood real estate investors, must build two long-required stairways to the sand, install a $425,000 signalized crosswalk near the hotel and pay $200,000 in fines as well as $300,000 to a local conservation agency.
The penalties are the first that the powerful land use agency has imposed on property owners for violating beach access provisions of the California Coastal Act.
State legislators granted the commission the authority to level fines in 2014. Because of the deterrent effect, the agency usually resolves access violations far short of imposing a financial penalty.
The commission's decisions will eventually provide much-needed access points to two Malibu beaches that have long been walled off to the public by tightly spaced homes.
Agency officials say that 19 of 29 public easements for beach access in Malibu remain closed. Some property owners and residents have tried to deter the public from going to the beach by hiring security guards, putting up fake no-parking signs, painting curbs red and locking or blocking access ways.
In the Lent case, the commission issued a coastal development permit in 1979 for the construction of a two-story house at 20802 Pacific Coast Highway. According to commission records, the original owner obstructed the required easement with a gate, fence, private stairway and a deck without permits.
At the time, the commission had no enforcement plan or compliance officers to make sure permit recipients complied with conditions.
Agency officials said the Lents bought the house in 2002 and have knowingly refused to remove the obstacles to correct the violations since they were notified by the commission in 2007. Under the law, the current property owner is responsible for fixing access permit violations.
Commission officials said the couple made money at the public's expense by, in effect, converting the easement to private use.
For years, the couple rented the house out to vacationers for about $1,000 a night and advertised on real estate websites that the "romantic, gorgeous" property has access to a private beach.
According to the case, the Lents spent nine years arguing against the removal of the obstructions, saying they never installed them and never desired to keep the public out.
"We were not trying to block the easement, but trying in good faith to resolve the situation," Lent, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, told the commission.
Alan Block, the Lents' attorney, said fines were not appropriate because the couple inherited the violations. He added that his clients were willing to pay a $100,000 fine and remove the obstacles.
Commission officials say they sent some 30 warning letters to the Lents and repeatedly discussed the matter with the couple or their attorneys but could not reach an agreement. They added that the easement was feasible and ready to be opened except for the Lents' constant refusal to remove the gate, fence, stairs and deck.
The nine-year fight with the Lents involved several government agencies, said Commissioner Mary Shallenberger. "The public lost during that time while the private property owner gained."
According to commission records, the Malibu Beach Inn involved the owners' failure to build two public stairways at an adjacent state beach parking lot that was required by a coastal development permit issued in January 1988.
The permit allowed the original owners, Marlin Miser and Martin Cooper, to build the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn at 22878 Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Beach near the Malibu Pier.
Records show that Miser and Cooper never built the stairway. Neither did Hollywood moguls David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg after they bought the inn in April 2005.
They received a violation notice from the commission in 2007 after applying for a coastal development permit to remodel the hotel.
Agency records show that the violations were not resolved by the time Geffen and Katzenberg sold the inn to the Mani Brothers Real Estate Group in May 2015 for $80 million.
When the commission learned of the sale, it advised the owners of the permit violations and they and their attorneys worked with the agency to reach a settlement.