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California coastal panel challenges beach curfews

The California Coastal Commission is taking aim at beach curfews established by cities up and down the coast, saying they are illegal without state approval and that people have a right to be on the sand whenever they want.

The first major battle is brewing in Los Angeles, where the coastal agency has told the city that its longstanding midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew barring the public from beaches, piers and oceanfront parks from Will Rogers State Beach to Cabrillo Beach violates the state Coastal Act and must be relaxed.

Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said he’d like to forge compromises with Los Angeles and other cities for narrower curfews that would extend beach hours and grant exceptions for recreational activities while addressing proven public safety concerns. Already, Laguna Beach has changed its curfew rules since the commission raised objections.

“There are a lot of people who want to use the beach, which they have a constitutional right to do, in the middle of the night,” Douglas said. “You don’t preclude the public from that use without a good justification — a good reason — and we have to be able to look at that.”

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The new push is likely to renew debate over coastal access, with beach cities arguing that the curfews are needed to ward off late-night crime on the sand. Coastal Commission officials argue that crime has dropped significantly in the last decade while demand for time on the beach has increased.

City officials in Los Angeles said they had no intention of weakening a curfew that’s been on the books for decades. The city attorney’s office said that the curfew was meant to deter crime and that the state didn’t have the authority to challenge the statute.

Los Angeles’ curfew is well-known to people who have enjoyed an evening bonfire at Dockweiler State Beach by LAX or a moonlit walk in Venice only to have it cut short.

Enforcement of the curfew, however, may be inconsistent with the law.

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Lifeguards told The Times that they started clearing the sand and surf at 10 p.m., two hours earlier than stipulated in the city’s 1988 ordinance. And because many of the pathways, boardwalks and parks that adjoin the beach close at 10:30 under a separate ordinance, police tend to assume that anyone on the sand after that would be violating the law by crossing through.

Beach curfews became widespread across California as crime surged in the early 1990s and beach communities — Long Beach, Huntington Beach and Coronado among them — enacted or expanded nighttime closures out of concern for public safety.

In 1993 the Coastal Commission advised dozens of cities and counties that such closures were illegal without state permits, and local officials lashed back, defending their right to local control. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson accused the coastal panel of overstepping its bounds, and state lawmakers vowed legislation that would curb its authority, though nothing came of those pledges.

Now that crime rates have fallen and a growing population has intensified use of the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline, commission officials said they would be asking communities up and down the coast to either roll back their curfews or justify their restrictions on access.

Authorities who have watched the coast for decades, however, caution that the decline in crime may be in part the result of the curfews, not a signal that the restrictions should be shelved.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Huntington Beach lifeguard Chief Kyle Lindo recalls, troublemakers flocked to the city’s beaches after dark because it had one of the more tolerant curfews in the area — allowing people to stay until midnight. The open sand and fire pits attracted alcohol-fueled partyers, out-of-control bonfires and violent skirmishes between gangs, including serious stabbings.

“The beach was no longer an attractive destination,” he said. “It was just becoming the last place to hang out at the end of the night.”

That all changed in 1993, when the city instituted an earlier, 10 p.m. curfew and an era of calm ensued.

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The stricter rules, Lindo said, are applied sensibly: Parking lots and fire rings are closed, but lifeguards let surfers and grunion fishers cross the sand to get to the ocean.

“We’re not denying people access to the water,” he said. “It’s not like we’re putting a fence around the beach.”

Yet at least one city, Laguna Beach, has loosened its curfew at the state’s request. Some of the refinements the city made this year — including later closing times; exceptions for scuba diving, surfing and swimming; and a buffer area to allow nighttime access within 20 feet of the wet sand — are the types of changes coastal regulators said they would like to see in Los Angeles and other cities.

Coastal regulators said they started scrutinizing L.A.'s beach curfew after an increase in complaints, some made during a dispute over a controversial proposal to establish overnight parking districts in Venice.

During that debate, which pitted the homeless and free-parking advocates against residents who wanted their streets clear of RVs and campers, the city argued that limiting overnight parking to Venice residents did not deter public beach access because the city curfew meant the beach was closed at night anyway.

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office contends that the Coastal Commission has no authority over local laws beyond approving buildings, fences and other physical structures and accuses the panel of starting the inquiry into the city’s curfews as payback for L.A. taking the commission to court after it rejected the parking restrictions.

“The ongoing investigation is totally unjustified, without legal merit and represents retaliation against the City of Los Angeles,” wrote Deputy City Atty. Gerald Sato in an Oct. 1 letter to the commission. “We therefore demand that the investigation be terminated forthwith.”

Legal experts said Los Angeles would have little chance of convincing a judge that the commission had overreached.

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The courts have repeatedly sided with the commission when it has exerted its authority over local governments, and the 1976 Coastal Act gives the panel broad authority over both development along the coast and any change in the intensity of land use or access to the ocean.

“That would seem to pretty fairly include a curfew,” said Kenneth Stahl, a Chapman University law professor who specializes in land use. “Legally, I don’t think the city has a leg to stand on, based on the existing precedent.”

What may be happening, Stahl said, is the beginning of a political struggle over the extent of the commission’s power.

“L.A. may be signaling that they’re going to fight the commission politically, and this is not just about the curfew,” he said, adding that it could include enlisting the state Legislature or crafting a ballot measure to limit the panel’s authority.

Commission officials said that their limited staff hampers their ability to go after beach curfews across the state but that they would generally pursue the most heavily used stretches of coastline that generate the most complaints.

The commission, for instance, has already asked Huntington Beach to relax its 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew. Officials said the Orange County beach town is among many communities that have failed to have their curfews approved by the panel.

With Los Angeles standing in firm opposition, the commission wrote the city last week to say that if it didn’t agree to apply for a permit for its curfew, the panel would issue a cease-and-desist order.

If it comes to that, city officials said, they’re ready to fight.

tony.barboza@latimes.com


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