By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The California Coastal Commission levied a $1 million fine on Aug. 9 against a Laguna Beach couple for rebuilding their beachfront house in Laguna without applying for a coastal development permit.
Jeffrey and Tracy Katz, owners of 11 Lagunita Drive, were also ordered to remove the seawall along Victoria Beach within 60 days and submit an environmentally-sensitive plan to accomplish this within 14 days.
“I think this was willful, intentional disregard of the law,” Coastal Commission Chairwoman Dayna Bochco said. “The facts are very clear and this is going to be a very long conversation. I’m very disappointed that the violators would come and say we should negotiate at this late date.”
Steven Kaufmann, an attorney for the Katzes, argued that the construction at issue consisted of minor repairs and maintenance, and therefore did not require a coastal development permit. Instead, they secured approvals from the city of Laguna Beach.
Notably, Laguna Beach’s Design Review Committee determined the Katzes were exempt from needing a Coastal Development Permit in December 2017. However, the Coastal Commission later found this decision to be inaccurate and not supported by the facts of the project.
Coastal Commission staffers countered this argument by showing photos of the home before and after the construction, claiming that the extensive work constituted new development. This violated the commission’s conditions of approval for a temporary seawall to protect the property’s original 1952 home from erosion but not major construction.
Some of the Coastal Commissioners, including Commissioner Donne Brownsey, were perplexed by Kaufmann’s argument that the construction done at 11 Lagunita Drive was minor repair and maintenance, considering most of the home was stripped to the frame and rebuilt.
“In my mind, this is a case where a property owner with intent sought to not be bound by the laws that regulate development on our coast,” Brownsey said.
During an interview with the Independent on Wednesday, Kaufmann said the city carefully and properly reviewed the work done at 11 Lagunita Drive as an exempt minor remodel.
As of press time Thursday, the city of Laguna Beach had declined multiple opportunities to comment on the review process for the property.
“The Commission, unfortunately, ignored the law, the facts, and its own decisions and while expressing concerns about impacts on public access surprisingly ordered removal of a seawall it previously approved during the busiest beach days on Victoria Beach,” Kaufmann said. “11 Lagunita followed the law. There was no violation.”
He added that a lawsuit the Katzes previously filed against the Coastal Commission will continue because “we are left with no alternative but to seek judiciary review of the commission’s decision.”
Denise Erkeneff, an administrator and special events chairwoman with Surfrider Foundation’s South Orange County Chapter, said it’s clear that 11 Lagunita Drive was reconstructed because the city of Laguna Beach issued the project multiple building permits since 2016, several of which indicate major remodel and demolition.
“When you buy a property in the coastal zone those property owners should take the responsibility of public access and building on the coast seriously,” Erkeneff said. “I think the fine that was levied and the immediacy of the 60 days to remove the seawall sends a serious message.”
As many coastal property owners attempt to address the impacts of sea level rise, Erkeneff said she doesn’t expect this enforcement action to be the last of its kind.
Garry Brown, executive director and CEO of Orange County Coastkeeper, said he was delighted by the Coastal Commission’s decision, which reinforced the panel’s role in providing a level playing field for all Californians.
“It’s one time that a large development or big money didn’t have their way,” Brown said. “I think it’s reasonable and probably a generous offer by the commission based on what they could have assessed.”