By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
An Orange County Superior Court judge recently upheld a cease and desist order from the California Coastal Commission that required a Laguna Beach couple to remove a seawall they built to protect their oceanfront home on Victoria Beach.
However, Judge Randall Sherman ruled it was improper for the Commission to levy a $1 million fine against Jeffrey and Tracy Katz, owners of 11 Lagunita Drive. The Katz’s attorney Steve Kaufmann said his clients have no alternative but to appeal Sherman’s decision to uphold the cease and desist order.
“The Katzes are good people and they follow the law,” Kaufmann said. “They believe they followed the law and acted in good faith. I’m glad the judge recognized that.”
Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said the state agency is pleased with the court’s ruling on the seawall’s future.
“We were very gratified that the judge upheld the order to remove the seawall—that was very significant,” Schwartz said. “This case is important and will enable the Commission to better protect public beaches and access for all.”
In August 2018, the Commission voted to take enforcement action against 11 Lagunita LLC,which included ordering to remove the seawall along Victoria Beach within 60 days and submit an environmentally-sensitive plan to accomplish this within 14 days.
Later that month, the Katzes filed a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission in Orange County Superior Court, arguing they followed the city’s direction that they didn’t need to apply for a coastal development permit because their construction was considered a minor remodel.
The deadlines for removing the seawall and submitting an environmental plan for the demolition were delayed during the pending litigation.
Coastal Commission staffers countered this argument at an August 2019 hearing 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.
The Katzes’ attorney disagrees with that assessment.
“The city correctly determined that this was an exempt minor remodel,” Kaufmann said. “It followed its local coastal program. The bottom line is the Commission changed the rules to justify its [order], but that’s not how you do it.”
Kaufmann added that the aftermath of the Coastal Commission’s decision creates confusion for every other coastal property owner who wants to remodel.
Garry Brown, executive director and CEO of Orange County Coastkeeper, said his organization is pleased with the judge’s decision to uphold the Coastal Commission’s order.
“Any seawall has consequences as it impacts the surrounding beach and tidal area,” Brown said. “This homeowner clearly tried to circumvent the Commission’s authority to protect the coast.