Beach Access, Legal
September 18 2015

Court Rules City of Dana Point Acted with Pretext in Blocking Beach Access at Strands

by Angela Howe

On September 17, 2015, Judge Randa Trapp of the San Diego Superior Court ruled in favor of the California Coastal Commission's ("CCC") authority to protect beach access at Strands Beach in Dana Point. In doing so, the Court ruled against the City of Dana Point for enacting their so-called nuisance abatement ordinance with "no rational basis" for doing so and as "pretext for avoiding the requirements of its local coastal program."  

This issue began with the 2004 approval of the Strands Headlands development of multi-million dollar homes on the beach.  In exchange for a development permit, the Coastal Commission required that there be ample public beach access at this development, including an open accessway from the middle of the parking lot down to the beach.  Beach access hours and regulation has traditionally been within the jurisdiction and review of the CCC.  Since the inception of the California Coastal Act in 1976, the Commission has been working with municipalities up and down the coast to amicably resolve access and safety concerns.  Unfortunately, in this case, the City of Dana Point refused to work with the CCC and enacted an “urgency ordinance” declaring existence of a nuisance at the site and mandating the enforcement of restrictive closure hours for Central and Mid-Strands Accessway.  It was this Urgency Nuisance Ordinance that was invalidated by the recent ruling, not only for lack of evidentiary support but also because the City apparently had a disingenuous motivation for enacting the ordinance, that is, to avoid Coastal Commission jurisdiction.

Judge Trapp's ruling found that the City could not demonstrate that there was an actual or prospective nuisance occuring at the Strands Beach. There was no probable or imminent danger that constitute a public nuisance nor require nuisance abatement procedures in locking the gates and preventing the public from reaching the beach through the accessway in question, even during daylight hours.  In analyzing the Dana Point City Council's motivation for declaring a nuisance, the court found that the City offered no rational basis for the action and "nothing more than speculation, conjecture and fear mongering."

The result of this case is that the Coastal Commission will now have the ability to overrule any unreasonable curtailment of public beach access at Strands, including the restrictive hours and gates through the Mid-Strands. The City's use of Coastal Act section 30005(b) to allegedly regulate nuisance was found to be illegitimate, and the issue of beach access in the Strands Headland development was held to fall squarely within Coastal Commission purview. This case will now set statewide precedent to support the Coastal Act protections for beach access and the Coastal Commission's authority to regulate cities and counties that attempt to evade those requirements.

The City has now lost at the lower court to Surfrider's challenge of the Urgency Ordinance, lost at the Appeals Court regarding CCC jurisdiction to regulate the beach access at Strands, lost their petition for Supreme Court review and have now lost again in the Superior Court on the current remanded case that found the City also acted with pretext in deciding to pass the Urgency Nuisance Ordinance. The City may appeal this ruling.  But, after these four losses and five years of litigation, shouldn't the City finally act in the best interest of the public, drop the case, and open the Strands gates?