Along with crushed white marble sand traps on its golf course and stone fireplaces in its spa rooms, the St. Regis resort in Dana Point offers "exclusive access" to the Monarch Bay Club on the sand at Salt Creek Beach.
But longtime members of the small private club, an aging wooden bar and restaurant, have a different message for guests of the $240-million St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa: "Locals only."
Kicking sand in the St. Regis' face just weeks before the resort opens, a homeowners association has stirred up a classic Southern California fracas in an Orange County Superior Court lawsuit over who can do what with the beach site.
Hotel guests "can get access to the beach, but it's our position that they can't have access to the beach club," said John B. Miles, a member of the homeowners' Monarch Bay Assn.
In the early 1960s, the area's original developer built the club for nearby residents, with those in Monarch Bay getting guaranteed memberships at steep discounts. But after the developer held a number of raucous parties at the club in the 1970s, residents denied the developer access to the walled enclave's private streets, the only easy route to the beach club.
That led to a lawsuit that was settled in 1983, giving residents full use of the club and limiting the number of outside memberships to nearby residents and to a coastal hotel, which Monarch Bay says is the oceanfront Ritz-Carlton resort.
The terms of that settlement, homeowners contend, may now allow them to block the St. Regis, on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway across from the Ritz-Carlton, from sending resort guests to the beach club.
"It's really a question of protecting the neighborhood," said the homeowners' lawyer, Thomas P. Davis of Laguna Beach. "They had a lot of problems in the 1970s, even a riot on one Fourth of July. It's a matter of traffic, parking, noise, late-night parties and too many people at a too-small club."
St. Regis officials hope a solution can be negotiated soon. Their 400-room hotel, sprawling across a hillside and surrounded by palm trees and fountains, is scheduled to open July 30 with accommodations priced at $375 to $5,000 a night.
"We want to let our guests have a cocktail on the beach or a bite to eat as they watch the sun go down over the ocean," said Seamus McManus, the St. Regis' general manager. He said access to the club is a "very important part" of the resort's overall marketing.
Experts say it is a key ingredient in the mix of golf, spa and beach amenities the St. Regis needs to attract business.
In the battle to snare high-end travelers, losing access to the club means "you just lost one of your important mousetraps," said Donald Wise, a local hotel broker.
The developer, Capital Pacific Holdings, contends it relied on having access to the club when it asked Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide to manage the hotel as a St. Regis, Starwood's luxury brand. The homeowners group twice confirmed in writing that access would be granted, according to a court filing by Capital Pacific.
Monarch Bay was built in the 1960s on coastal bluffs that had been home mainly to sagebrush, salt spray and dirt bikers. The club, on its unadorned concrete footing, provided residents and a few hundred nonresident members a place to park near the beach, shower off after a dip, and grab a drink, a hamburger and some popcorn.
"It was just kind of a shanty," said former member Bob Thomas of Encino, who recalls paying "about $200 a year" for his outside membership when his family joined in the 1970s.
While retaining its funky look, the club was gradually upgraded over the years, along with its cost: The last tab Thomas got before he dropped his membership three years ago was "at least $3,000 or $4,000." That figure already has risen to $5,000.
Since the area began to be carved out of the Moulton Ranch in 1960, a series of developers ending with Capital Pacific has owned the club. But Monarch Bay residents, who include broadcaster Jess Marlow and O.J. Simpson's former in-laws, the Brown family, have always been guaranteed full use.
Hotel guests apparently fall in a separate "special member" category under the 1983 agreement, which denies such members the right to drive to the club or use its parking lot. So if hotel guests are deemed eligible for membership, they must walk to the club, said Davis, the homeowners' lawyer.
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Monarch Bay residents sued the St. Regis resort, which is set to open July 30, to block it from using their private beach club for hotel guests.