Three Arch Bay pays for privacy

The California Coastal Commission has put a price on the privacy of the beach at Three Arch Bay.

Three Arch Bay Homeowners Assn. will pay $50,000 — or possibly $70,000 — toward the renovation of the city Brooks Street stairs in lieu of providing public access to the beach in the gated community. The levy was a condition of commission approval of a coastal development permit to repair the stairs to the Three Arch Bay beach.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” City Manager Ken Frank said. “The Coastal Commission gave Three Arch Bay the permit to redo their stairs to the beach. They [Three Arch Bay association] don’t want to allow public access to their beach so the commission put a condition on to help us rebuild our stairs at Brooks Street, because we are underfunded for that project.”

Association Executive Director Drew Harper made no comment. Three Arch Bay is located in South Laguna, several miles south of Brooks Street beach.


Three Arch Bay’s project, which was begun, according to a commission staff report, without a required coastal development permit, includes the reconstruction of two staircases down a coastal bluff face, and replacement of more than 50% of decayed wood and deteriorated concrete.

The southernmost stairs were originally built in the late 1940s. The northern stairs were constructed a decade or so later. Their locations will not be changed.

Under ordinary circumstances the commission would require public access to the beach from the nearest public road paralleling the beach — in this case, Pacific Coast Highway — before approving a project either new or a replacement of more than 50% of a structure.

The commission could not force public access because the stairs connect to a pre-Coastal Act gated community, one of four areas in the city that was “white holed.” White holed areas were designated for deferred certification when the commission approved Laguna’s Local Coastal Plan in July 1992 that gave the city the jurisdiction to issue coastal development permits.


However, the commission did refer in its approval to Section 30212 of the Coastal Act that requires nearby alternative public beach access.

1000 Steps Beach, about one-half mile north of Three Arch Bay, is the nearest public vertical access to the gated community’ beach. It is a county beach.

The city’s Brooks Street Beach is about 3 1/2 miles north of Three Arch Bay. The city has budgeted $210,000 for repairs to the staircase to the popular surfing beach, not enough, Frank said, to fund the project.

“The city has not completed plans nor gone out to bid, but it is clear that entire project will cost between $250,000 and $275,000,” Frank said. “An infusion of funds would enable the entire project to go forward, which will provide safer, more aesthetically appealing beach access for everyone who uses the Brooks Street stairway.”

The commission decided that Three Arch Bay should contribute $50,000 toward the project to compensate for the lack of public access to its beach. Commission staff recommended that the amount could be increased by another $20,000, if necessary, to ensure the city’s project has the funding needed for design, permits and construction. The city would have to justify the need for the additional funding to complete the project.

Two concepts for the Brooks Street project are being weighed — one of which would just replace the staircase at its present location, but that does no solve the problem of the drop off when sand is low. The second concept relocates the end of the stairs closer to the bluff, intruding less onto the sand. Rocks at the proposed terminus are more significant in that location and beachgoers would be able to step safely onto the rocks or the sand virtually all year, Frank said.

A proposal for the top of the stairs includes benches, walls, new landscaping, trash can enclosures and other facilities.

If the Brooks Street project becomes infeasible due to lack of funds or another reason, the commission executive director may identify an alternate project for the Three Arch Bay in-lieu fee.


The city is required to complete and open to the public the stairway within 36 months of the executive director’s approval of the final plan and must use the in-lieu funds within five years after transfer to the city.

Should private beach communities contribute to public beach amenities? Write us at P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, CA, 92652; e-mail us at or fax us at (949) 494-8979. Please give us your name, home address and phone number for verification purposes only.