NEWPORT BEACH — Residents of a private island in Newport Bay are suing the California Coastal Commission to keep their pedestrian bridge from opening to the public.
The Coastal Commission contends that The Bay Island Club, an association of 24 homeowners on the tiny island by that name, must allow public access to the bridge if the club wants to replace the aging 130-foot span. It's a classic example of the struggle between private landowners and state government, which, since the 1976 passage of the Coastal Act, has aggressively protected the public's access to shorelines and waterways.
The city owns the man-made canal under the bridge, and the Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to support the islanders in court. The island is about halfway down the Balboa Peninsula.
"Yes, it's across public property," said Councilman Don Webb. "But it really has no use other than coming on and off the island."
Coastal commissioners can picture people fishing, strolling and enjoying the views from the footbridge. The commissioners say that the city is required to keep it public.
"We felt that we needed to protect the public's interest in access to public waters," said Christopher Pederson, deputy chief counsel for the commission.
Currently, a gate blocks access from the Peninsula end of the bridge.
"It's private property and there's no justification for overnight wanting to make it public," said John Briscoe, a San Francisco attorney representing the island's residents.
The club applied for a number of coastal development permits in 2009. One was to replace the bridge with another that would meet seismic standards and accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Part of the legal dispute concerns the club's rights to build across the waterway. While the club says its easement allows for restrictions on who can use the bridge, the Coastal Commission disagrees. The commission would like the club to keep the bridge's peninsula end open but would allow for a gate on the island end.
"It doesn't say that they can exclude anyone," said Pederson.
Dave Garrett, 21, would love to fish off the bridge during low tide. His spot for the past five years has been right next it, but it's hard to cast when the water is low.
"If you fish responsibly, it's fine," he said. "It's not going to hurt anybody."
The city and the Bay Island Club maintain that they would be liable for injuries on the bridge — from people casting lures overhead or jumping off into shallow water.
"Somebody is going to break a neck … and there are no immunities for the club," said Briscoe. "We're going to get sued."
For now, it's the club that's suing. Orange County Superior Court Judge B. Tam Nomoto Schumann will hear arguments in September.