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Tearing Down Walls: Beach Access Litigation Victory at Dana Point Strands Beach

Surfrider Foundation won a hard-fought legal battle this week after receiving a favorable declaratory ruling from Judge Joan Lewis of San Diego Superior Court.  The judgment held that the City of Dana Point’s public nuisance ordinance requiring locked gates and restrictive hours on beach access at the Strands main beach access trail be set aside.  Specifically, the ruling states that “the Court believes the record was entirely lacking in evidentiary support for declaring a nuisance and that the City acted arbitrarily and capriciously in making such a decision.”  Additionally, Judge Lewis noted that the City cannot act to abate a nuisance “in a manner that is in excess of that necessary without obtaining a coastal permit.”  The ruling now puts the issue of beach access at Strands Beach back before the purview of the California Coastal Commission (“CCC”).

The issue of beach access hours and regulation has traditionally been within the jurisdiction 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 closure hours for the Strand Vista Park access ways as well as locked gates on the trails.

The City’s actions to truncate beach access not only ran counter to the protections in the Coastal Act and the original develop permit for “The Strand at Headlands,” but also the City had no legitimate basis for declaring a nuisance. As the Court points out, the original Local Coastal Program Amendment (“LCPA”) allowing for the residential development of multi-million dollar homes to be built adjacent to the beach required that public beach access be guaranteed throughout the project design.  Specifically, the LCPA approved by the Commission required that pedestrian and bicycle access through the residential development to the beach remain unimpeded and that a direct connection from the mid-point of the beach parking lot to the central Strand beach be guaranteed. Gates were only to be used to prohibit vehicular access.

In 2008, before the development was open, the developer Headlands LLC appeared before the Coastal Commission to argue that completion of the central access stairway was “geo-technically infeasible” and that they should not be made to complete this requirement of the development permit.  Based on the CCC’s experts advice rebutting the Developer, the Commissioners saw through this excuse and held that the main access way must still be erected.  Lo and behold those stairs were able to be built and the very same Mid-Strand Vista access way is now the subject of this litigation.

Before the central access way was ever open to the public, locking gates were erected and restrictive hours were put in place by the City.  When the Coastal Commission notified the City that the restrictive gates and hours rendered the project out of compliance with the Local Coastal Program, the City enacted the urgency ordinance and declared a “public nuisance” in order to avoid the regulation of the CCC.  The CCC subsequently declared the City’s action excessive and ruled that a Coastal Development Permit would be required.  This is when the City of Dana Point sued the California Coastal Commission over the issue.  On the same matter, Surfrider Foundation sued the City of Dana Point for restricting beach access by declaring a bogus public nuisance.  The cases were consolidated and removed to San Diego Superior Court for a neutral forum.

After a two hour trial and thorough evaluation of the City’s public record relating to the nuisance ordinance, the San Diego Superior Court held that “[t]he City could point to no police activity that supported the Council’s determination that the trails should be closed 13 to 15 hours of the day” and ruled that “the support for closing the trails was based also on pure speculation.”  The Court went on to rule that “the City cannot act to abate the nuisance – i.e., limit hours of access/place of gates – in a manner that is in excess of that necessary without obtaining a coastal permit.”

Judge Lewis concluded that the City’s record was utterly lacking in evidentiary support and that the record failed to support a public nuisance.  Therefore, Surfrider was granted declaratory relief and a finding that the nuisance ordinance should be set aside.  The Court found that the matter more appropriately belongs before the Coastal Commission, the authoritative agency on the matter of beach access.  The holding is significant for strengthening California beach access law and ensuring this important public right will not be truncated by cities or developers along the beautiful California coast.