Property Owner Says It’s A Bluff
When an iron gate with security camera went up across the driveway at 2425 S. Coast Highway, so did a figurative door slam on public coastal access to a beach stairway, claim two neighbors contesting design elements of a large-scale bluff-top home there.
Michael Wilson, who lives just north at 2419 South Coast Highway, is part of a group of residents that placed a half-page advertisement in local newspapers last week asking people who have used that stairway to step up. The private wooden staircase leads to nearly 3,000 feet of Laguna coastline that runs between Moss Point on the north and Victoria Beach to the south.
Other members of the group are Fred Talarico with Vista Community Planning, consultants for Wilson and neighbor Lorenzo Longo, and Eric Jessen, who formerly negotiated land acquisitions for the county parks department and was instrumental in acquiring public access stairways to several South Laguna beaches as development tradeoffs. The ad asks readers to help “protect a national treasure” and directs them to this website.
“If we have footage or pictures or proof of people accessing the property and all of a sudden a gate comes up,” suggested Talarico, “that’s a telltale trigger that you have to look into it.” Talarico said he has appealed the blocked beach passage to the California Coastal Commission. “It’s one of the largest stretches in Laguna without access to the ocean,” he said.
Despite the contention that direct coastal access from 2425 South Coast Highway has historically existed, “they simply made it up as a threat because people get afraid of what the Coastal Commission might do,” said Sherman Stacey, attorney for Mark Towfiq, the new property owner.
The real contention is another issue altogether, said Towfiq. “They want the driveway back. They want to use it for parking spots.”
A cracked and bumpy asphalt driveway runs along the west side of South Coast Highway across the back of Wilson’s and Longo’s houses and continues into Towfiq’s property. Wilson’s appeal asked that Towfiq be required to cut a new driveway directly to the highway from his property, which the City Council denied in March.
But Towfiq said he’s willing to negotiate and pave a new driveway if Wilson will drop the appeals. “They’re just using this to delay time and to try to get concessions and the driveway out of us,” Towfiq said. “We feel pretty comfortable that there is really no evidence of public access. Life is too short. If there’s negotiated things that are good for everybody, I’m willing to do it.”
Talarico said he’s met with Towfiq several times and that offer was never made. “It would be wonderful it that were true,” commented Talarico. Wilson did not return phone calls requesting his response.
Towfiq said the underlying accusation is that he installed the new gate to discourage people from going to the beach there. “There was always a gate there,” he rebuts, “and there was also a gate at the ocean. Both gates were locked, especially the one at the ocean.” Towfiq, who purchased the property for $6.1 million in December 2009 from Robert and Sarah Bunkall, said he installed a remote-controlled gate north of the existing gate last year for easier entry onto the property. “I feel like my property is being extorted from me by these false statements,” he told the City Council at a meeting last month.
Jessen said he’s confident that access to Rockledge beaches will be required due to the length of shoreline between existing public access stairways at Moss Point to the north and Victoria Beach to the south. “The California Coastal Act mandates that the entire coast of California be accessible to the public,” he said.
Jessen explained that access to the Rockledge shoreline from Moss Point or Victoria Beach can be treacherous even at low tide. “If there was already a public stairway into the Rockledge coves, that would tend to diminish any case to be built for advocating that Mr. Towfiq be required or asked to donate a narrow strip of land to provide for public access. But one doesn’t exist.”
Meg Vaughn, a Coastal Commission analyst, was unaware of the debate. “The [California] Coastal Act requires that access be maximized,” she corroborated. “But we would need to look into the history of its use, who’s been using it, under what circumstances, how long, how many people were using it and if it was just local use or more of a regional broad-based use.” If it’s a passageway that neighbors have been using, she said, “it might not be a big deal.”
Cheryl Estes, whose parents, the Bunkalls, owned the property since 1969, said she never noticed beachgoers using her stairway to that particular piece of heaven. “Throughout the years, Mr. Wilson had asked permission occasionally to access the cove below our property. If there was a public accessway, then Mr. Wilson would not have needed this permission,” she said at the City Council meeting.
“Mr. Wilson and Mr. Longo falsely claim that direct coastal access from the project site has historically existed for the public,” she continued. “During the years our family owned this property, no public access to the coastline was provided through the property.”
Wilson’s complaints to city review boards have been over design issues, blocking sunlight and breeching privacy to Wilson’s children’s bedrooms, and that public access to the beach will be prohibited. The council denied Wilson’s appeal but required the new homebuilder to move the structure two-feet farther south so 15 feet would separate the houses.
Towfiq plans to build a 7,700 square-foot, three-story energy-efficient home, a 485-square-foot storage space, a 437-square-foot workshop and a 903-square-foot attached four-car garage on 20,219 square feet of prime oceanfront bluff top, all below the level of South Coast Highway. The master bedroom is elevated over the pool and garden and the third story is a 300-square-foot artist’s studio with a rooftop deck, he said. In exchange for widening the distance between his house and Wilson’s, the council allowed Towfiq to keep a bluff-top deck as is with its view of Moss Point that city staff recommended removing.
The Bunkall’s 917-square-foot cottage and 606-square-foot guesthouse and garage built in 1946 still stand on the property. The structures are not on the city or state historic registers.
“There’s been a long-standing feud,” said City Manager John Pietig in regards to the property. “I hope the two neighbors can find peace in our times,” commented Mayor Pro Tem Jane Egly.
Photo by Ted Reckas
Public beach access in the area north of historic Villa Rockledge is the newest wedge in a feud between neighbors over a bluff-top home expansion.