Los Angeles County has released its action plan for giving two parcels of oceanfront land in Manhattan Beach back to the family of the original Black owners.
The plan, dated Wednesday, June 30, was months in the making, and the property transfer at its core remains contingent on the state giving the county the authority to return the land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.
But it also provides the first look at the complex logistics involved in turning the two parcels from public to private property. It discusses transferring the land, assessing the property’s worth, determining who the legal heirs are and limiting the property tax burden on the family — and the future of a lifeguard station on the land.
The land the county is working to return was the site of Bruce’s Beach Lodge, which provided a recreational haven for Black people during the early part of the 20th century, at a time when African Americans lacked access to the coast. But Manhattan Beach then used eminent domain to take over the two parcels owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, as well as other properties. Much of the land the city took over became open green space, eventually renamed Bruce’s Beach Park. The two parcels on which the resort sat are now owned by Los Angeles County and have a lifeguard station on it.
The Bruces owned parcels 8 and 9 in Block 5, bordered by 26th and 27th Streets, and Manhattan Avenue and The Strand. Those parcels, among others, became state property in 1948. The state gave the parcels to L.A. County in 1995.
There has been a burgeoning movement since last year to return the two parcels to the Bruce family, an outcome that has become increasingly likely in recent months. In April, a state Senate Bill was introduced to give Los Angeles County the authority to give back the land to the Bruce family; the bill has passed the Senate and is now in the Assembly. At the same time, the Board of Supervisors signaled its support by directing the County CEO’s Office and the Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative to come up with a plan for returning the land.
“This is the first time a government has done anything like this and there were a lot of questions about how it would work,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a Thursday statement.
Hahn, whose Fourth District includes Manhattan Beach, was among the elected officials who spearheaded the legislative efforts to return the land.
“Now, this report outlines a clear pathway forward for us to transfer this land,” Hahn said, “and addresses everything from identifying the rightful descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, to the ongoing Lifeguard operations at the site, to mitigating the tax burden for the Bruce family.”
The area on which the parcels sit, for example, is zoned for public facilities. Any changes to the zoning would need approval from Manhattan Beach and, because of where the land is, the California Coastal Commission, the action plan said. It would also need to align with the California Environmental Quality Act.
Other issues, according to the action plan, include assessing the property’s worth and figuring out who the county should actually transfer it to.
The Treasurer and Tax Collector Department, with the County Public Administrator’s Office, will determine who Willa and Charles Bruce’s legal heirs are. The department may contract with a third-party law firm to vet the information as well.
Once that’s done, the county will identify the heirs’ needs and negotiate an agreement for the transfer of the property that meets those need, the plan said.
The Board of Supervisors have also said they want to mitigate the potential property tax burden on the Bruce family once it takes control of the land.
The county assessor will conduct a tax appraisal based on the land having no zoning restrictions and come up with a value estimate based on the property in its current state, the action plan said. The assessor will also determine whether the county needs to hire an economist to evaluate tax implications and historical fiscal impact, as well as to explore options to mitigate the tax burden on the Bruce family.
A potentially thornier issue, meanwhile, is what to do with the county lifeguard station.
County CEO Fesia Davenport and the Los Angeles County Fire Authority are determining whether it’s financially feasible to relocate the lifeguard facility.
Officials will look at whether there are locations with enough space to accommodate the station, a process that could take up to two years, the action plan said.
That would also require a broader needs assessment prior to completing a lease, which would ensure the CEO’s real estate division had ample chance to find a similar space for relocation.
Davenport’s office will also determine costs for temporary solutions, and propose immediate short-term and long-term alternatives to operating out of the existing space.
Davenport will appraise all parcels in Block 5, the action plan said, to see if adjacent county-owned parcels can be given to the Bruces in case it’s not feasible to move the county lifeguard station elsewhere.
She’ll also write up a title report, which outlines the property’s legal status and chain-of-ownership information, and determine whether there are any covenants on the land, the action plan said.
County Counsel and Davenport’s office will develop options for the Bruces to consider regarding potentially leasing the property back to the county to keep the station at its current spot.
The county’s CEO’s Office and Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative will provide the Board of Supervisors more details in about four months, after fully evaluating and preparing for the impacts the land transfer will have on the Bruce family and the county’s operations. The action plan did not provide an estimated date by which the land would formally transfer to the Bruce heirs.
The supervisors do not have to OK the action plan, but could choose to bring individual items in to before the panel for a discussion and vote, said Liz Odendahl, spokeswoman for Hahn’s office.
If SB 796 passes, as it is expected to, the California Department of Parks and Recreation will need to amend the deed by Dec. 31. The Assembly must vote by Sept. 10; if it passes there, the bill would go to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for his signature.
“When I first realized that the County owned the property that was once Willa and Charles Bruce’s Beach Lodge,” Hahn said, “I knew that returning it to the Bruce family was the right thing to do.
“I am committed to getting this done,” Hahn added, “and setting an example for governments nationwide for how we can begin to right the historic injustices committed against African Americans in this country.”
Source: Orange County Register