Coastal Commission green lights Surf and Sand Resort remodel

Splashes Restaurant at Surf & Sand Resort. File photo

The California Coastal Commission narrowly approved Surf and Sand Resort’s proposed disability access improvements and aesthetic upgrades, plus after-the-fact approval of a 2001 addition to the resort spa building, on Friday.

The state panel voted 6-5 to deny the appeal filed by Laguna Beach residents Mark and Sharon Fudge, signaling some commissioners’ distaste for oceanfront property owners who fail to seek necessary permits before breaking ground and then ask for approval years later.

In recent days, coastal staffers acknowledged a 20-foot seaward extension of the wedding pavilion and terrace was developed without a coastal development permit and violates the Coastal Act. This revelation was uncovered by UNITE HERE Local 11, a union representing hospitality workers, which opposed Surf and Sand’s remodel over concerns about pricing working-class families out of overnight visits to Orange County’s coast.

Commissioners Linda Escalante and Zahirah Mann were among the panel’s minority who expressed their opposition to granting approval to a project when there is pending enforcement at the property.

“I have real concerns when we’re trying to do enforcement and after-the-fact permitting,” Mann said.

The Commission’s action on Friday does not absolve Surf & Sand Resort, Regency Properties, L.P. from future enforcement on the unpermitted terrace and stairs to the beach, commission district director Karl Schwing said.

As a condition of approval, the resort will file a contingency plan for sea-level rise within five years and cover the cost of bus passes for employees.

“We are very pleased with the California Coastal Commission’s support for the Surf & Sand Resort remodel project. The property has been a cherished part of the Laguna Beach community for over 70 years and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to repair and maintain this historical icon,” Resort General Manager Joanna Bear said in a prepared statement.

Surf and Sand is the latest in a string of Laguna Beach hotel remodels brought before the state panel following an appeal by the Fudges.

Laguna Beach mayor Bob Whalen strongly encouraged the commissioners to follow its staffers’ recommendation to approve the project. In 2018, the City Council approved the remodel to bring it into compliance with fire and life safety laws and provide access to disabled individuals.

“As a city, we’re very much looking forward these improvements proceeding,” Whalen said.

Danielle Wilson, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 11, said the Commission’s vote was disappointing.

“When the Commission just swiftly approves after-the-fact permits, after someone brings this to their attention, it sends a message to developers that this a cost of doing business,” Wilson said.

Commission staffers recommended approving the project because there won’t be addition or demolition to structural elements other than previous the Spa building and there will be no construction activity on the public beach adjacent to the resort. Alternations to the Spa building fell below the 50% threshold for a major remodel, which requires a higher level of environmental study, according to a staff report.

A hotel and restaurant at Surf and Sand date back to at least the 1950s, according to a staff report. Three of the primary resort building predate the Coastal Commission’s creation, grandfathering certain parking conditions that wouldn’t be allowed in new projects.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a lobby remodel will add a wheelchair-accessible restroom, check-in area, employee areas, and common lobby area. Parking lots will also be reconfigured to include seven wheelchair-accessible parking spaces; there are currently no such spaces on-site.

Planned hotel remodels have been a flashpoint in local politics as hoteliers attempt to recover from an unprecedented drop-off in tourism due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Coast Inn cleared the Coastal Commission in August after nixing plans to add a rooftop pool and bar amid uproar from neighbors complaining the project provided no on-site parking for new uses. Pacific Edge Hotel’s overhaul will return to the Coastal Commission next year after commissioners found a substantial issue with the feasibility of a $625,000 in-lieu fee to help rehabilitate Crystal Cove Conservancy’s cottages for low-income lodging.

Hotel Laguna reopened its restaurant and lobby in October after a closed session city council vote to partially withdraw a stop-work order attracted a probe by the Orange County District Attorney Office. The Coastal Commission is still reviewing an appeal by the Fudges, claiming city officials failed to properly study bluff-top construction, unlawful improvements on the beach sand, major alterations to the historic building’s ground floor, and piecemealing the project via multiple permit applications.

Laguna Beach hotels face increased competition from peers across the state and nation, Ashley Johnson, president and CEO of Visit Laguna Beach, wrote in a letter.

“Surf & Sand Resort continues to be a sought-after property by travelers across the globe, however; we are starting to hear of dissatisfaction from repeat consumers related to the lack of state-of-the-art enhancements that are a part of their proposed plan,” Johnson said.

The Resort’s management has been unwilling to address the employee parking shortage and its impacts on the community for decades, Penny Elia, a 36-year Laguna Beach resident and environmental advocate with the Sierra Club, wrote in a letter.

“For decades Surf and Sand staff have parked along Coast Highway and up in the side streets surrounding the resort,” Elia wrote in a letter. “Complaints about this Surf and Sand parking are on record at the City of Laguna Beach, along with all of the other complaints about overflow parking from the businesses along Coast Highway that do not have adequate parking. This off-site employee parking displaces public access parking for the public beaches in this area.”

In response to the hospitality union’s concerns about dwindling affordable lodging, coastal staffers said such considerations are typically limited to new hotels or major remodels.

“The Commission finds that the requirement to consider offering lower cost
rooms is not triggered by the proposed project,” staffers wrote in a report.

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