Surf and Sand Resort remodel gets mixed reviews ahead of Coastal Commission hearing

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Splashes Restaurant at Surf & Sand Resort. File photo

The California Coastal Commission will consider Surf and Sand Resort’s proposed disability access improvements and aesthetic upgrades, plus after-the-fact approval of a 2001 addition to the resort spa building, during an appeal hearing on Friday.

Surf and Sand is the latest Laguna Beach hotel to be brought before the state panel following an appeal by a Laguna Beach couple, Mark and Sharon Fudge. UNITE HERE Local 11, a union representing hospitality workers, also added the resort to a list of local hotel remodels its opposing over concerns about pricing working-class families out of overnight visits to Orange County’s coast. Coastal access for all is a requirement of the Coastal Act and city law requires local officials to preserve and encourage adding affordable hotel room inventory.

Commission staffers have recommended approving the project because there won’t be addition or demolition to structural elements other than previous the Spa building and there will be no construction activity on the public beach adjacent to the resort. Alternations to the Spa building fell below the 50% threshold for a major remodel, which requires a higher level of environmental study, according to a staff report.

“Fundamentally, ratifying the extensive unpermitted improvements at the Resort—including encroachments along the bluff and an intensification of use from retail to spa—emboldens developers to continue making piecemeal changes to their hotels in the hopes that the Coastal Commission will not notice, or will promptly approve after-the-fact permits,” Gideon Kracov, an attorney representing UNITE HERE Local 11, wrote in a letter.

A Hotel and restaurant at Surf and Sand date back to at least the 1950s, according to a staff report. Three of the primary resort building predate the Coastal Commission’s creation, grandfathering certain parking conditions that wouldn’t be allowed in new projects.

The hospitality union’s attorneys also claim the oceanfront wedding terrace deck doesn’t conform to the precise contours permitted approved in 1989. They’ve pointed to a geotechnical engineering report from April 1998 detailing a “new terrace” would include “new retaining walls along the top of the sea cliff and new concrete decks.”

Commission staffers dismissed this challenge saying the existing terrace is in “substantial conformance” with the approved footprint.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a lobby remodel will add a wheelchair-accessible restroom, check-in area, employee areas, and common lobby area. Parking lots will also be reconfigured to include seven wheelchair-accessible parking spaces; there are currently no such spaces on-site.

Planned hotel remodels have been a flashpoint in local politics as hoteliers attempt to recover from an unprecedented drop-off in tourism due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Coast Inn cleared the Coastal Commission in August after nixing plans to add a rooftop pool and bar amid uproar from neighbors complaining the project provided no on-site parking for new uses. Pacific Edge Hotel’s overhaul will return to the Coastal Commission next year after commissioners found a substantial issue with the feasibility of a $625,000 in-lieu fee to help rehabilitate Crystal Cove Conservancy’s cottages for low-income lodging.

Hotel Laguna reopened its restaurant and lobby in October after a closed session city council vote to partially withdraw a stop-work order attracted a probe by the Orange County District Attorney Office. The Coastal Commission is still reviewing an appeal by the Fudges, claiming city officials failed to properly study bluff-top construction, unlawful improvements on the beach sand, major alterations to the historic building’s ground floor, and piecemealing the project via multiple permit applications.

Laguna Beach hotels face increased competition from peers across the state and nation, Ashley Johnson, president and CEO of Visit Laguna Beach, wrote in a letter.

“Surf & Sand Resort continues to be a sought-after property by travelers across the globe, however; we are starting to hear of dissatisfaction from repeat consumers related to the lack of state-of-the-art enhancements that are a part of their proposed plan,” Johnson said.

The Resort’s management has been unwilling to address the employee parking shortage and its impacts on the community for decades, Penny Elia, a 36-year Laguna Beach resident and environmental advocate with the Sierra Club, wrote in a letter.

“For decades Surf and Sand staff have parked along Coast Highway and up in the side streets surrounding the resort,” Elia wrote in a letter. “Complaints about this Surf and Sand parking are on record at the City of Laguna Beach, along with all of the other complaints about overflow parking from the businesses along Coast Highway that do not have adequate parking. This off-site employee parking displaces public access parking for the public beaches in this area.”

In response to the hospitality union’s concerns about dwindling affordable lodging, coast staffers said such considerations are typically limited to new hotels or major remodels.

“The Commission finds that the requirement to consider offering lower cost
rooms is not triggered by the proposed project,” staffers wrote in a report.

The Coastal Commission is set to virtually meet to consider the Surf and Sand project at 9 a.m. on Friday. Anyone wishing to comment should submit a request to speak here by 5 p.m. on Thursday.

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