By Andrea Adelson | LB Indy
When the landmark Hotel Laguna opened 84 years ago on Main Beach, it was an easy decision to exploit its choice location by offering guests exclusive spots on the sand.
“It is virtually impossible to imagine that a waterfront hotel opening for business in 1930 would have neglected to designate and claim the beach adjacent as a location where it would offer its patrons scenic views, access to bathing in the ocean and food and beverage service,” a University of New Mexico history professor wrote in a letter describing hotel industry practices to the California Coastal Commission.
That precedent for a now scarce and coveted amenity on a public beach is now under scrutiny by the agency established by voter initiative in 1972 to protect the state’s coastline. At a hearing initially scheduled for next week, the commission’s staff recommended rejecting Hotel Laguna’s vested-rights claim to continue to operate its guests-only beach club, a potential loss to hotel operations of $1 million in annual revenue.
“The Coastal Commission is out to exterminate it,” said attorney Sherman L. Stacey, of Corona del Mar, who represents E. W. Merritt Farms, of Porterville, Calif., which acquired the hotel in 1973. “Our defense is we did lawfully operate for 40 years before the Coastal Commission existed,” said Stacey, who learned Tuesday that his request to postpone the matter was granted, though no new hearing date was set.
At issue are 50 chaise lounges and 20 umbrellas that Hotel Laguna’s staff sets out daily in good weather. For decades, the 28-foot section of sand that runs the length of the hotel’s 253-foot ocean frontage was roped off with temporary posts. The set up is for members of the hotel’s beach club, who currently pay from $2,000 to $3,000 a year, depending on whether they want two lounge chairs or four, for a spot in the sun where they can be pampered with food and drink. The set up disbands at sunset.
Rope was required as a condition of a liquor license, said current hotel operator Georgia Andersen, whose husband acquired the hotel business in 1985, in the unsigned commission report.
When the commission first issued a cease and desist violation in 2010, the hotel voluntarily agreed to discontinue the ropes and instead posted temporary signs around the chairs, Sherman said. “We thought it was resolved.”
A commission renewed its pursuit in 2012, seeking more information, which prompted Merritt Farms to formally file its vested rights claim, Sherman said. The matter went unresolved in the interim in part because of the deaths of longtime hotel operator Claes Andersen and hotel owner Richard W. Merritt, he said.
In defense of the claim, Sherman submitted letters of support. Besides history Prof. Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, they included missives from former City Manager Ken Frank, former police Chief Neil Purcell and former lifeguard Dale Ghere, who cumulatively recall the hotel roping off its property between 1950 and 1980.
The agency sought public access across Hotel Laguna’s beachfront as early as June 1987 when the owner applied for a permit for a patio, the staff report says. The hotel owner refused to comply with the demand and dropped the application, but in 1995 obtained approval for the same job from the city, by then delegated the authority to issue coastal development permits. The city did not impose the same dedication condition, the staff report points out.
The reason, Sherman explained, was not laxity by the city but a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Coastal Commission, which held that imposing conditions with financial costs was an unconstitutional taking of property.
Ocean front property boundaries in California extend to the mean high tide line. In a 1935 survey and another done in 2012, that line establishes Hotel Laguna’s property boundary as extending 60 feet into the sand, twice the width of the beach club, Sherman said.
In its violation case, the commission contends that roping off a section of sand interferes with public access, which it deems “significant,” and that the practice should be considered development because it intensifies use.
Moreover, the hotel owner has yet to provide evidence of government authorization for the activity, “fatal to the claim of vested rights,” the staff report says.
Sherman provided an index of 61 permits issued by the city for various alterations at the hotel between 1932 and 1969. “It is a reasonable inference that the city was aware of barriers and signs and food service,” Sherman wrote in his claim.
“Hotel Laguna’s rights can’t be viewed from a 2012 perspective for an event that occurred between 1930 and 1972,” the claim says.