Editorial: They’re L.A.'s beach parks, but the Coastal Commission should have its say

A man rests on the grassy area along Ocean Front Walk at sunset.
A man rests on the grassy area along Ocean Front Walk at sunset.
(Los Angeles Times)

For years the city of Los Angeles has enforced a curfew at the two public beaches it owns. They are considered city parks, and like most city parks in L.A., they close at night: Venice Beach at midnight; Cabrillo Beach around 10. They reopen at 5 a.m.

But even though Los Angeles considers the beaches parks, to be regulated like any other parks, the California Coastal Commission sees the matter from a different point of view. To the commission, those beaches are not so much city properties as they are part of the coastal zone that stretches more than 1,000 miles along the length of the state and extends inland from a few blocks to a few miles in different places.

The Coastal Commission was charged by Proposition 20 in 1972 and the California Coastal Act in 1976 with protecting the public’s right to access the water and the sand below the mean high tide line, whether it fronts on beaches or boardwalks, private homes or other property. That access is guaranteed by the state Constitution.

Over the years, the commission has wrangled with municipalities up and down the state, insisting that they go through the proper process to win approval for beach curfews. Any municipality seeking changes that will affect access to the shoreline must apply for a coastal development permit, the commission says, and Los Angeles city officials have never done this. The commission has urged, cajoled and threatened, to no avail. The last time the commission came after the city, telling officials they needed state approval for a beach curfew, was in 2010. Then-City Atty. Carmen Trutanich’s office essentially told the commissioners they didn’t have the authority to challenge the city’s law and should get lost.


But now, with a new city attorney, a new crop of commissioners and renewed complaints from the public about the closures, the Coastal Commission has approached the city again, sending a letter in April asking officials to seek approval for the curfews. City Atty. Mike Feuer says he is considering how to respond.

Well, we have some advice for him: Don’t do what Trutanich did. Trutanich’s office struck exactly the wrong tone. The city must not ignore or dismiss the Coastal Commission as it engages in its important, legally mandated duties. Access to the water is the right of every Californian, and Los Angeles may not unilaterally establish rules to the contrary.

But at the same time, the commission needs to be practical and sensible. Cities have a legitimate interest in reducing crime, and they have limited police resources. While curfews shouldn’t be used as a tactic to roust the homeless, cities are within their rights to keep their vast, dark beaches from becoming campgrounds or gang hangouts or ungovernable public spaces where drugs are sold and brawls or assaults occur. The commission needs to work with the city to reach a reasonable agreement that addresses the concerns of both sides.

The commission seems open to compromise. The letter it sent to the city was neither defensive nor combative. It urged the city to enter the permit process — “we are more than willing to work with you,” it said — and to figure out solutions.

The Coastal Commission’s own guidelines call on it to take public safety into account in reviewing a community’s beach restrictions. And it has allowed curfews for some beaches. (Santa Cruz currently has one, for instance.) It’s not unreasonable for the commission to ask the city to explain its public safety concerns and to justify its assertion that the beach can’t be adequately policed and must be closed to the public. On the other hand, the commission should not think that it can make better decisions about public safety than the city of Los Angeles and its police officials, and must defer, up to a point, to the experts in the field.

Any restriction on beach access needs to be considered carefully and undertaken cautiously. Los Angeles should explain its position to the Coastal Commission, and the two should work together to forge a levelheaded compromise.