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O.C. judge sides with Coastal Commission, orders Laguna Beach homeowners to tear down controversial seawall

11 Lagunita Drive seawall
Penny Elia, a Laguna Beach resident and longtime coastal advocate, looks at a seawall that the California Coastal Commission ordered torn down in this August 2018 file photo. The homeowner erected the wall to protect a $25-million home on Victoria Beach.
(File Photo)

An Orange County Superior Court judge has upheld a California Coastal Commission order to tear down a long-disputed seawall at a Laguna Beach home, but dropped the $1-million fine the commission had imposed on the homeowners.

Judge Randall Sherman’s July 3 ruling affirmed the commission’s decision last August that Jeffrey and Tracy Katz must remove the seawall guarding their property at 11 Lagunita Drive, above Victoria Beach.

“We were very gratified that the judge upheld the order — that was very significant,” said Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz, in a statement. “This case is important and will enable the commission to better protect public beaches and access for all.”

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The Katzes’ lawyer, Steve Kaufmann, said the couple plans to appeal the decision.

“They’re very nice people,” Kaufmann said. “They don’t believe that they did anything wrong.”

A written report explaining Sherman’s reason for dropping the $1-million fine was unavailable Thursday, but Kaufmann said the judge “found that the Katzes acted in good faith” when remodeling their property.

Sherman’s ruling is the latest event in a years-long saga that began before the Katzes even owned the Lagunita Drive property.

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The seawall, which still stands, was built in 2005 with an emergency permit that later expired. The wall sat unpermitted for years — protecting the roughly 5,000-square-foot house that was built in 1952, according to the Coastal Commission.

According to court documents, the previous property owner secured conditional Coastal Commission approval for the 11-foot-tall, 80-foot-long seawall to stay in place — so long as the homeowners complied with some provisos, including that the house not be “redeveloped in a manner that constitutes new development.”

If the owners violated the conditions, the permit for the seawall would expire.

Seawalls can interrupt natural sand flow, leading to erosion and the eventual disappearance of stretches of public beaches, according to the Coastal Commission.

The Katzes, who also own property next door, purchased the house at 11 Lagunita in November 2015. With permits from Laguna Beach in hand — and the city’s assurance that the project did not require Coastal Commission approval — the Katzes moved forward with renovating the property, court documents state.

Laguna Beach ultimately approved plans for the Katzes to make changes to siding, roofing, walls, patio, a bench, steps, fencing, gates, walkways, landscaping, deck surfaces, air conditioning units and an outdoor shower, according to a court brief the city filed.

The Katzes and Kaufmann have called the work a “minor remodel” because the framing of the house remained unchanged.

However, the Coastal Commission alleges that “by July 2016, the house was almost completely demolished, with only some framing and foundation left.”

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After a public hearing in August, the commission unanimously issued a cease-and-desist order that required the Katzes to remove the seawall within 60 days and pay the now-rescinded $1-million penalty.

The Katzes sued to overturn the commission’s order on Aug. 21, 2018.


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