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Balboa Peninsula flags may soon be decommissioned, as city says pole is on public land

The Newport Beach Public Works department this week posted a removal notice on a flagpole by the Balboa Pier.
The Newport Beach Public Works department this week posted a removal notice on a flagpole by the Balboa Pier that may sit on state-owned beach land. Some residents, and one city official, however, are fighting to keep it.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A civic conundrum is unfolding in Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula just in time for Independence Day, as the city’s code enforcement team considers removing a flagpole with a long but somewhat mysterious provenance for encroaching onto publicly owned land.

Officers responding to a complaint arrived Tuesday to a row of homes along the oceanfront Newport-Balboa Bike Trail, where the U.S. and California state flags flapped freely atop a flagpole mounted into a sandy beach berm.

Neighbors say the pole has likely been there since around the time the nearby houses were built in the 1950s.

“The flagpole’s been here for 70 years, before I even existed,” said Kelly Brown, who rents a property nearby and has become a caretaker of the structure, hoisting fresh standards when old ones become wind ravaged and tattered.

Kelly Brown holds a removal notice  posted Tuesday on a flagpole near her Balboa Peninsula home.
Kelly Brown holds a removal notice posted Tuesday on a flagpole near her Balboa Peninsula home. After neighbors spoke out in defense of the pole, city officials “paused” the planned removal to do more research.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I work from home,” Brown continued. “Every day I sit here, stare at the ocean, look at these flags and do my business.”

But city officials say the pole’s placement on public land poses a problem. That’s why one code enforcer during Tuesday’s visit, after placing inquiries about ownership, tagged the pole for removal. A notice announced it would be torn down Friday.

Angry locals, who say the flags not only pay homage to patriots and veterans but provide a perfect photo op for tourists visiting the beach, sprang into action.

“Imagine the visual of a town, on the weekend before July 4, removing the American flag,” said attorney Judd Shaw, who lives near Brown. “How un-American. It’s not a political flag — it’s the United States flag.”

Shaw and other Balboa Peninsula residents emailed members of the Newport Beach City Council this week asking for intervention. Their pleas did not fall on deaf ears.

A Newport Beach flagpole slated for removal for encroaching on public land got a reprieve when neighbors complained.
A Newport Beach flagpole slated for removal for encroaching on public land got a reprieve when neighbors complained. But if the state owns the beach land, the pole’s fate will be up to the California Coastal Commission.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

City Councilman Noah Blom said the city needed to do some research into the history of the structure but maintained on Wednesday the flagpole would stay if he had anything to do with it.

“We’re just not going to be ripping down American flags. Especially around the Fourth of July,” he said. “If code enforcement has a direct problem with it, any one of the City Council members could pull it up for consideration.”

Newport Beach Community Development Director Seimone Jurjis said determining the fate of the pole may be beyond the city’s reach if it sits on state-owned beach land. In that case, the California Coastal Commission would have the final say on encroachment.

He cited an earlier case, in which the landscaping of some Peninsula Point homeowners had begun to creep onto state-owned beach sand. Although Newport Beach officials attempted to work out a compromise, the commission ordered the plants to be torn out and fined offenders.

“Since we don’t own the land, we don’t have the coastal jurisdiction for it,” Jurjis said.

Further, unpermitted structures in public areas can present liability issues to public entities.

“If a bicyclist accidentally crashed into that flagpole and someone falls and injures themselves, who’s at fault in this?” Jurjis posed. “Either the city didn’t act to remove the flagpole in a timely manner, or they allowed [it] to continue. Ultimately we’ll be at fault.”

City spokesman John Pope confirmed Wednesday removal of the flagpole had been “put on pause” to give the city more time to investigate the pole’s origin and determine whether the land it’s on belongs to the city or the state. He said the matter was brought to the city’s attention by a resident but said such complaints are kept anonymous.

Brown can’t imagine why anyone would have cause to complain about a flagpole that’s been standing undisturbed for so long.

“I’ve had flags hanging there for four years and no one’s ever complained. People have even come from all over the world to take pictures in front of these flags,” she said.

“Whoever complained, as far as I’m concerned, karma’s going to get them in the butt.”

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