Laguna Couple Appeals Removal of Seawall

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By Meghann M. Cuniff, Special to the Independent

A seawall at Victoria Beach that was ordered removed by the California Coastal Commission last summer will remain in place as a Laguna Beach couple appeals the decision, part of a deal approved recently by an Orange County Superior Court judge.

Jeffrey and Tracy Katz, owners of 11 Lagunita Drive, were ordered by the Coastal Commission to remove their seawall along Victoria Beach last August. The seawall will now remain in place as the couple appeals the decision. File photo.

The settlement thwarts two remaining claims in Jeffrey and Tracy Katzes’ lawsuit and allows them to immediately appeal the judge’s decision that the seawall should be removed.

The ruling in June wasn’t all bad for them—while he upheld the Commission’s removal requirement, Judge Randall Sherman axed a $1 million fine the Commission levied against the couple. But the Katzes’ lawyer, Steven Kaufmann, said Wednesday the removal order is the major issue, and it’s based on an erroneous determination that conflicts with prior decisions.

“The Commission just changed the standard,” Kaufmann said.

Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said the agreement “allows the case to move to the Court of Appeal without further delay so that we can achieve final resolution of this matter as quickly as possible and hopefully open up the beach once and for all.”

The Katzes sued last year after the Commission issued a cease and desist order regarding “new, unpermitted development” that required the seawall’s removal and imposed the $1 million fine. They bought the home at 11 Lagunita Drive in 2015, less than a month after the Commission approved a permit to reinforce the seawall that specified the wall’s authorization would expire if the house was “redeveloped in a manner that constitutes new development.”

The Katzes changed the home in ways they’ve said increase its values from $14 million to $25 million, which they’ve described as merely repair and maintenance. A neighbor complained, but a city investigation sided with the Katzes and determined the changes didn’t constitute a major remodel. That’s when the Commission got involved, triggering a months-long fight that led to the Katzes’ lawsuit in January 2018.

A Commission staff report cited the purported $11 million increase in property value when describing the work as “a near-100% remodel, by any meaningful standard.” The report stated that the wall, at 11 feet high and 80 feet long, “is already causing public access impacts at Victoria Beach.”

The Commission referenced a seawall at the beach’s south end that was installed in 1963 and “has effectively eliminated the beach for much of the year.”

“Little dry sand exists there, and often, the waves crash directly into the seawall, allowing for absolutely no public access,” according to the report, which said the burdens of seawalls “are disproportionately borne by low-income and minority communities, who cannot afford to rent many oceanfront homes.”

The report cited the Katzes’ claim that the home could rent for $70,000 a month. Their lawsuit requested that as part compensation for their claim that the removal requirement constituted an unlawful government taking of property, but that claim was dismissed under the agreement approved last week.

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