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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