Coastal Commission rejects Newport’s attempt to save some homeowners’ beach encroachments

Properties with beach encroachments are shown on East Ocean Front between L and M streets on the Balboa Peninsula in 2016.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday blocked Newport Beach’s attempt to allow many oceanfront homeowners to keep or install landscaping and other property on the adjoining public beach, considering it to effectively be privatization.

The city sought to amend its Local Coastal Program, a development agreement with the state, to allow — for a fee paid by the homeowners — up to 15 feet of encroachments on the far east end of the Balboa Peninsula known as Peninsula Point. That would have protected at least some of the landscaping, patios, furniture, pavers, fences and other adornments that make up unpermitted seaward “backyards” reaching past the property lines of 55 homes between F Street and the harbor entrance channel. Many of those extensions have been in place for years, even decades.

The Peninsula Point encroachments can reach as far out as 80 feet. The city offered to reduce them to 15 feet, the depth of the city right of way abutting the homes, and restore the covered sand.

“We want the beach restored every bit as much as the general public and you do,” Don Schmitz, the city’s lobbyist to the Coastal Commission, told the panel at its meeting Wednesday in San Luis Obispo. He flipped among aerial photos of the current encroachments and a rendering showing them hemmed in.

But the commission wanted more and voted unanimously to reject Newport’s request.

Commissioner Linda Escalante called the encroachments “squatting by the rich.” Commissioner Donne Brownsey said the $300,000 a year that city staff estimated it could collect would be little compared with the value of “precious beach” that commission staff said is dwindling due to sea level rise and associated erosion.

“Additionally, allowing a few coastal property owners exclusive use of public beach areas is antithetical to environmental justice principles, burdening non-coastal communities that already face numerous barriers to accessing the coast by limiting areas of the beach available to the general public for recreation,” a commission staff report said.

The commission did not give explicit direction on what to do about existing encroachments, although the state has issued notices of violation to homeowners as recently as June.

Schmitz said the city, in accord with the commission’s decision, will apply for permits needed to remove the encroachments.

The city approved a plan intended to resolve the Peninsula Point encroachment issue in 2016 after years of discussions with residents. The city submitted the proposed amendment to the state in 2017.

Newport had a track record on the matter, as Schmitz pointed out. In 1991, negotiations between the Coastal Commission and the city allowed homeowners on the far west end of the Balboa Peninsula to keep encroachments in exchange for improved beach access via finished street ends, paved walkways and restrooms.

If the commission would be open to similar encroachments around Peninsula Point, the city proposed infrastructure improvements such as lifeguard towers, bicycle racks, trash bins, specialized wheelchairs that can navigate sand, and further operation of the seasonal Balboa Peninsula Trolley.

Commission staff said a few things had changed since the 1991 allowance: the city’s own recognition of the area’s southern dune scrub habitat, considered rare by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; the federal government declaring 25 acres of eastern peninsula beach as critical habitat for the threatened Western snowy plover; and the expectation that sea level rise will narrow the dry sand.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.