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Courts again reject bid to preserve illegal Laguna Beach seawall

A couple’s legal attempt to preserve a seawall protecting one of their beachfront homes in Laguna Beach has been rejected for a third time by state courts, with an appellate court panel on Thursday, Jan. 7, unanimously declining a petition to rehear the case it had already decided in favor of the state Coastal Commission.

Jeffrey and Tracy Katz’s remodeling of the investment home was in violation of the seawall permit, which required the 15-year-old wall be removed if there was new development on the Victoria Beach lot, according to the commission order.

The Katzes have argued that their remodel was simply “repair and maintenance,” although they’ve also said the work increased the home’s value from $14 million to $25 million. The commission cited the extensive removal and replacement of walls, roofing, plumbing and wiring in determining the work qualified as “new development.”

The courts have agreed, with a three-judge panel of the Fourth Appellate District court issuing a unanimous denial of the rehearing request. The appellate court had also upheld a $1 million fine by the commission.

However, Katzes’ attorney Steven Kaufmann said the couple would continue the battle and ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.

Interior and exterior walls were removed for the Katzes beachfront remodel in Laguna Beach. The owners contend that the work was “repair and maintenance” and did not need state Coastal Commission approval. The courts have so far agreed with the commission that the work violates the permit for the seawall and have upheld the order to remove the seawall. (Photo courtesy of the California Coastal Commission)

Coastal Commission attorney Alex Helperin reiterated his belief that the high court was unlikely to take up the matter, and said the rulings so far have been a victory for the public because they help preserve a public beach.

“The commission took the long view here, saying that when the old house is eventually gone, the seawall must go too,” Helperin said. “Because for every seawall that’s built, the public loses a beach. This decision shows that that long-view approach is working.”

The permit for the seawall, built in 2005, was issued to protect the 1952 dwelling from increasingly threatening winter waves. But the commission does not approve seawalls for new construction, part of its policy of allowing ocean waters and beaches to migrate landward. That’s intended to preserve public beaches as sea levels rise rather than allow portions of the coast to become lined with homes perched above submerged concrete and boulder barriers.

In August 2018, the commission voted unanimously to have the seawall removed within 60 days to levy the fine. However, removal of the wall has been forestalled by legal proceedings over the house, located at 11 Lagunita Drive. The Katzes, who live next door, had purchased the home as an investment, according to court documents.

When the city issued the permit for the remodeling, it determined the work was not a major remodel and so did not need Coastal Commission review. The Katzes have argued to the courts — with the support of the city — that because it was not a major remodel, the project did not violate the seawall permit.

Not that city staff was always unanimous in that conclusion.

After a neighbor complained in 2017 about the extent of the work, the city launched an investigation and city Building Official Dennis Bogle wrote in an email that  “every area inside and outside of the house has been rebuilt,” according to the commission staff report for the August 2018 hearing.

However, Zoning Administrator Nancy Csira responded to Bogle that she felt “this remodel still did not meet the city’s current major remodel definition,” according to the commission staff report. But she also acknowledged that the city’s definition was not approved by the Coastal Commission.

The city has stood by Csira’s determination, filing briefs in support of the Katzes’ lawsuit and appeal against the commission.


Source: Orange County Register

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