Laguna Beach couple loses appeal to set aside $1 million fine, seawall removal order

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Jeffrey and Tracy Katz, owners of 11 Lagunita Drive, were ordered by the Coastal Commission to remove their seawall along Victoria Beach in August 2018.

A Laguna Beach couple recently suffered a setback in their effort to overturn the California Coastal Commission’s levy of a $1 million fine for failing to obtain permits to build a seawall at their oceanfront home.

On Dec. 4, a three-judge panel with the Fourth Appellate District upheld the Coastal Commission’s fine and a cease and desist order, mandating Jeffrey and Tracy Katz remove the seawall and other improvements not green-lighted by the state agency.

“In sum, we find no abuse of discretion as to the Coastal Commission’s penalty order,” the appellate court said. “The Katzes have shown no basis for this court to absolve them of the properly imposed $1 million administrative penalty.”

The Katzes’ argument partially turned on whether the work at 11 Lagunita constituted a major remodel, which requires a thorough public review by city and state officials. The Coastal Commission held that construction that tore the building down to a skeletal frame, exceeded routine repair and maintenance that requires far less governmental review.

The trouble started back in 2016 after Laguna Beach issued building permits to 11 Lagunita LLC but didn’t classify it as a major remodel. The Katzes also didn’t apply for a development permit at that time, following city staffers’ determination the remodel was exempt, according to court records.

In January 2017, a neighbor requested the city issue a cease and desist order after observing extensive construction. Coastal commission staffers launched their enforcement action shortly after.

The ongoing legal dispute between the Katzes and Coastal Commission stretches back to August 2018.

The reinstatement of the $1 million penalty is a stark warning for property owners who place protecting valuable oceanfront development ahead of public access protected by the Coastal Access. A section of Victoria Beach in front of the seawall now has only a few feet of dry sand, the Coastal Commission reported in court documents.

This was the first case challenging the Commission’s use of its new administrative penalty authority, and the challenge was completely rejected by the court, Noaki Schwartz, a spokesperson for California Coastal Commission, wrote in an email.

“The court upheld the Commission’s orders to protect our beaches and specifically held that the Commission properly analyzed and assessed penalties in this case,” Schwartz said. “This case demonstrates the importance of working with the Commission to comply with permit conditions, the need for long-term planning to protect our coast and the critical role penalties can play to deter violations.”

Attorney Steven Kaufmann said the Katzes disagreed with the appellate decision and will seek review by the State Supreme Court.

“It’s a troubling case for anyone in the coastal zone who faces Commission enforcement proceedings believing that on the record and in complete good faith, they’ve fully complied with all guiding Coastal Commission decisions, the City’s local coastal program, the Commission’s review of the seawall project, and the subsequent careful review of the remodel by the City,” Kaufmann wrote in an email.

City Attorney Phil Kohn declined to comment on the appellate decision.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. It would appear this is a political witch hunt. Started by a jealous neighbor. Actually the homeowner ought to be applauded for taking the erosion risks to their property seriously. Recently a cliff fell in Southern California rushing and suffocating beach goers. Will the families who died sue the State and city for failure to sustain safe egress to that area of beach? The Coastal Commission is being hypocritical here. The homeowner is being chastised unduly. Will Federal Funds be spent when this home is damaged by tides? Yes it will. That damage cost will be enormous. The Coastal Commission ought to focus on shoring up its responsibilities and stop this absurd attack on a tax payer. Let the County Assessor levy the upgrade and leave it at that.
    [PDF]Erosion, Scour, and Foundation Design – Home | FEMA.gov
    https://www.fema.gov/…/757_apd_5_erosionscour.pdf
    Jul 26, 2013 · • Coastal buildings are often subject to flood loads and conditions that do not affect inland buildings. These include waves, high velocity storm surge flow, floodborne debris, and erosion and scour. This Recovery Advisory will focus on erosion and scour. See FEMA 499, Home Builder’s Guide to Coastal

  2. This is the type of useless laws and ordinances that will soon be shattered to dust. I suggest the Katz’s simply go on about their lives the bureaucrats will have much more important things to worry about in the next few years.

  3. Please Mr. & Mrs. Katz, litigate the City. Seriously.
    This happens all too often, lax upper echelon administrators/analysts on City staff that constantly seem oblivious, never read or understood the Cal Coastal Act—Council members as well.
    As a pro enviro/land use analyst myself, living in lower Vic and recreating on the beach these past 15 years, I not only watched the”remodel” in progress but was there the day that the young man, a CCC staff investigator, showed up to meet with a homeowner and local activist several years ago. He couldn’t find a free parking space, had to feed the meter up near Dizz’s
    As a retired general contractor working/living in Laguna since1972, I KNEW that someone would object due to the extent, the fudging and bending of building codes: Another enviro protectionist (not me) and/or Lagunita resident would blow the whistle…..it was obviously out of whack, out of compliance with ordinances and regulations.
    Please sue the City, make an example out of us, the sheer incompetence and ineptitude, the ignorance have seen their days. Maybe Councilmembers Iseman & Weiss should agendize this flaccid, permissive oversight on the LBCC agenda. Look for both to be co-opted and go along to get along. How much $$$ have we blown to defend, including legal fees and staff time, over relatively simple concepts?
    Time for a thorough housecleaning at City Hall regarding upper staff level employees, the do-nothing, say-nothing wrong Council just blithely refuse to accept reality: We’re not really what we purport to be, we basically green light anything, then place the time delays & $$$ defense burden upon people not only like the Katz’ but lesser/smaller but obviously out of compliance projects, our staff leaves us vulnerable to what will likely happen.
    Look at the Dornin’s/DIG, I have no love for them as everyone knows, I was the main consultant hereby the Canyon opposition, but if they weren’t getting some positive news I’d bet that THEY would have sued the City to recoup what they went through. And I would not blame them. The City planner that drew the supporting docs/analyses screwed up nearly 10 years ago, which is why there’s still (yes, STILL) ongoing litigation over the Artist’s Work/Live out in the Canyon.
    The past 25 years have been typified by a hostile relationship with the CCC. So of course the CCC is predisposed to suspect and not trust this city. What does theCity try to do? Pull a Pontius Pilate, tries to wash its hands but at least IS partially responsible for the plight.
    Think back, go through archives: Try to find, then count up all of the times that a project send up before the CCC on appeal. That should give everyone an inkling of where are.
    Humans seem to only learn lessons if punishment is possibility.

  4. I frequently go to Victoria beach. Well aware of the seawall. This statement is entirely wrong:

    “ A section of Victoria Beach in front of the seawall now has only a few feet of dry sand, the Coastal Commission reported in court documents.”

    How do they measure it? Victoria is a very wide beach, with lots of sand and this hasn’t changed in years. Yes, there are seasonal changes, winter storms do tend to move a lot of sand, but then it comes back in summertime.

    This whole situation looks like another step in continued attack at coastal property ownership in this state. Don’t fool everyone, if you want to take over just declare it Eminent Domain!

  5. The homeowners lied i n an effort to do non-permitted work and got caught. The faux rock wall looks horrendously out of place as does the Crystal Cove wannabe house.
    It’s not a conspiracy, the 3-4 ft ‘cliff’ won’t fall and kill someone, and the homeowners are cryin’ cause they’re not getting their way.

  6. It is beyond reproach for the COASTAL COMMISSION to have ANY SAY WHATSOEVER on a private owners property.

    If the city approved, than the city should be liable. Not the homeowner. Is every single homeowner supposed to go to the Coastal Commission for review?

    This is why leftists get what they vote for.

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