Access to Ocean 'Should Not Be a Blackmail Situation' : Beachfront Residents Hail Court Ruling

Times Staff Writer

Laguna Beach homeowner Thomas B. Pitcher was delighted Friday by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the California Coastal Commission's authority to require public access to private beaches.

"People were struggling to save their castles and here was a public agency telling them they can't do it," Pitcher said. "It (the court decision) should have come."

To Pitcher and other beachfront residents, the state commission and county planners have gone overboard in forcing them to provide public stairs or walkways whenever they built a tennis court, added a seawall or remodeled their homes.

At commission hearings, "it's been nothing but a parade of new homeowners trying to put a roof on their homes and just getting squashed by the staff. You'd be embarrassed," said Pitcher, an attorney who lives in the exclusive gate-guarded community of Irvine Cove.

Change Predicted

After Friday's ruling, the commission's stance will probably have to change, he and local land-use attorneys said.

The court's 5-4 ruling overturned a decision by state officials requiring a Ventura couple with beachfront property to grant public access to the beach in return for a building permit.

"I agree with (the Supreme Court's) decision. It should not be a blackmail situation," said Dani Ratkelis, who had to build a stairway from Pacific Coast Highway to the beach below Camel Point in South Laguna to get a building permit for her house. Also lauding Friday's decision was state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), whose Local Government Committee plans to hold a hearing Aug. 15 on public access and private property rights.

Too often, Coastal Commission demands for public access have "become extortive in nature," Bergeson said.

Her office has received many complaints from "people who were treated badly (by the commission) if they asked to improve their property," she said.

Effort Abandoned

In Emerald Bay, another gate-guarded community in Laguna Beach, the homeowners' association gave up its efforts to build a tennis court because the commission had demanded public access as the price for a building permit, Bergeson noted.

There is a balance between public recreation needs and private property rights, she said, but often "we have seen abuses" by the commission.

Too often, property owners have lost their privacy and faced liability problems when the general public was allowed to "tramp through their property," Bergeson said. She said she hoped Friday's high court ruling would stop those abuses.

Along Orange County's 42 miles of oceanfront, 12.7 miles of coastal land are privately owned.

Some of those private beaches are accessible by simply walking along the sand from a public beach, said Grace Sekida, who handles coastal access issues for the Orange County Planning Department, but "some are in coved areas or gated communities where there's no way to get to public tidelands except with a vertical easement."

With Friday's ruling, such an easement will probably no longer be required when property owners build a seawall or add a second story to their home, Orange County officials said.

"In terms of public access, it's a new constraint," said John Griset, deputy county counsel for Orange County. "The project itself is going to have to demonstrate that it has caused a problem, a blockage of public access."

'Capistrano 13'

For nearly six years, a group of Orange County homeowners known as "the Capistrano 13" have fought with the state Coastal Commission and Orange County over beach access. In 1980, 13 homeowners along Beach Road in Capistrano Bay rebuilt their seawalls to protect their homes during storms.

The Coastal Commission demanded that they provide beach access in return for permits to build the walls. In 1981, the state attorney general sued them, seeking $10,000 from each defendant, plus $1,000 a day for every day the seawalls remained intact.

About two months ago, the homeowners "made peace with the Coastal Commission" and allowed some access across the beach, said their attorney, Charles E. Greenberg of Long Beach.

Greenberg said he did not know if the Supreme Court ruling would be retroactive, but he said he thought the Capistrano Beach 13 would probably not be affected by it.

But, he said, when any other beachfront homeowner "decides to come in for a permit for a second story of a house, the Coastal Commission or the county probably will not be able to require the dedication of the easement."

Previous Policy

Until now, Greenberg said, "the Coastal Commission has been applying access provisions on just about anything a homeowners' association wanted to do. If they built a little clubhouse or widened the street from 12 to 20 feet--anything that constituted a new development--the commission required access.

"Now, (access) will be a lot more limited," said Greenberg, who represents about eight beachfront homeowners' associations in Orange County.

Many homeowners' associations have delayed making improvements because of the commission's stance, but now they will be able to consider remodeling their property, Greenberg said.

Times staff writer Lynn Smith contributed to this story.

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