In direct conflict with the City Council, state Coastal Commission officials want to scrap virtually all the city’s proposals to cope with hundreds of oceanfront patios that intrude onto the beach.
On the eve of an important Coastal Commission hearing to deal with the encroachment issue, agency analysts have issued a formal report opposing Newport’s recent plan to allow most of the offending patios as long as property owners pay an annual fee.
Staff members say the encroachments are illegal and will continue to deny beach access in violation of the state Coastal Act if they remain. They prescribe dramatic revisions that could provide a beachfront sidewalk in west Newport and drastically scale back decks and patios along stretches of sand from the Santa Ana River to the Balboa Peninsula.
“There is no question that the homeowners stand to gain a private benefit if allowed to extend their uses onto public land, particularly because, with permits, the unsettled status of the encroachments is solved,” the report stated.
The staff recommendations, completed last week, set the stage for the commission’s vote on whether to approve the city proposals, which were adopted in October. Commissioners, who regulate land-use and development along the coast, are scheduled to hear the issue Jan. 9 in Marina del Rey.
The 107-page report by executive director Peter Douglas, district director Charles Damm and program analyst Vicky Komie is only advisory. It does not necessarily reflect the individual views of commissioners on a complex and emotional issue that has occupied Newport officials off and on since 1985.
Although the contents of the report were anticipated, city officials and property owners who have worked on the issue were dismayed that the staff wants to gut what has been billed as a major compromise for property owners, the city and the beach-going public.
“It essentially throws out everything we have worked on for two years,” said Jerry L. Cobb, a beachfront homeowner and chairman of the city’s Ocean Front Encroachment Committee. “They just don’t consider all the complexity our city has looked at for several years. They just ignore it.”
At issue are 295 homes with patios, wooden decks, spas, fire pits and barbecues that have spilled over onto city easements for a sidewalk and a beachfront road in west Newport that was planned 80 years ago but never built.
The encroachments are along three miles of shoreline between the Santa Ana River mouth and the Wedge, a popular surfing spot at the end of the Balboa Peninsula. Some extend as far as 27 feet beyond the property line.
Many are simple concrete slab patios and retaining walls for old summer houses, while others are fully equipped decks of used brick and redwood that front two-story luxury homes. The situation has gone unchecked since the 1940s, when the first retaining walls were installed to protect against erosion and drifting sand.
After more than six public hearings over the span of a year, the City Council adopted a plan Oct. 22. The policy limits property owners in the west Newport area to extensions of 15 feet beyond their property lines, while denying encroachments to homeowners on Peninsula Point.
Property in the four blocks east of Balboa Pier was granted 7 1/2 feet of patio or fence encroachments up to the beachfront sidewalk.
The policy further established guidelines governing the use of the encroachment area and requires property owners to pay $600 a year in permit fees or $300 if they live in the four blocks east of Balboa Pier. Homeowners have a year to comply with the new regulations.
The city’s plan would force about 80 property owners to reduce the size of their patios and would generate revenue for the maintenance of beach facilities, parking lots and access points.
Coastal Commission staff members have not supported any beach encroachment regardless of who holds a legal interest in the land. They consider many of the patios and other improvements on the beach in Newport to have been built without proper permits.
Agency officials say the city must comply with the state Coastal Act and enhance public access by limiting encroachments to 5 feet and build a public sidewalk along the beach in west Newport.
The commission staff supports the proposed encroachment fees to raise money for parking lots, access points and other beach facilities. However, it wants something more expensive: an initial fee of $1,000, plus annual payments of $500.
Cobb said the Coastal Commission report has overlooked the fact that many encroachments were designed to protect homes from shifting sand and have not denied or reduced public access to the beach. In fact, city officials say, the city has spent considerable money to improve beach access and already has at least 89 access routes.
Also, the easements in question are not exactly the public’s, Cobb said, because beachfront-property owners have had a longstanding legal interest in the land beneath the surface of those easements. In the Balboa Pier area, he said, a portion of the easement for the sidewalk is not being used, while the proposed road in west Newport has never been built, although developers granted the easement 80 years ago.
“The city has had the right to use the surface, but it has never used it,” Cobb said. “If that easement were anywhere else in the city, it would have been vacated years ago.”
City officials said a 5-foot encroachment in the Balboa Pier area will leave a 2 1/2-foot-wide strip that will be difficult to maintain and so small as to be relatively useless to the public. Cobb said the strip amounted to nothing more than a “litter box.”
“I hope the commission will listen to the reasons for our decisions,” said Councilwoman Evelyn R. Hart, the council’s liaison to the beach encroachment committee. “Access should not be a problem. We have put in extra parking. We are doing more than our share and still trying to take care of the natural environment that we have.”
But if the Coastal Commission does not approve the city proposals, Newport Beach does not necessarily have to do anything. Cobb said the commission cannot order the city to tear out patios or build a new sidewalk, which it might not be able to afford anyway.
If the issue is pressed further, there is the potential for class-action lawsuits brought by beachfront-property owners who have an interest in the easements. “We could just end up with 10 years of litigation,” Cobb said.