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Going Coastal

By Frank J. Gruber

As longtime readers of this column know, when it comes to traveling, I am a champion moocher. Whether visiting my parents at their place in Italy or staying with my cousin and his family in their apartment in Prague, or touring South Africa courtesy my mother-in-law, I try to perfect the role of the gracious guest.

Last weekend I went back east for a wedding north of Boston and it nearly killed me to pay for a motel the night of the ceremony. But the only people I knew nearby were my friends, the family of the groom, and since their house was filled with relatives from places like Finland, I could hardly impose.

But things got back on track the next day when we took the bus from Logan Airport to Woods Hole and then the ferry to Martha's Vineyard. A college friend and her husband have been year-round residents on the island for about 15 years, and they invited us to spend a few days with them.

The experience was not unlike visiting my parents in Italy. Both households are used to visitors and many of the vacation rituals are the same. In both places an inordinate amount of each morning is spent drinking coffee and discussing (i) what to do that day and (ii) what to make for dinner.

The twist is that on Martha's Vineyard a lot of the discussion is about what beach to go to. The complicating factor is that to go to most beaches on the Vineyard, and in Massachusetts and much of the east coast generally, you need a credential.

The law back there is that private property extends to the average low tide line, and so beaches, even the wet sand, can be subject to private ownership and restrictions. A lot of the beaches are owned by towns, but instead of being public, they are closed to people who are not either residents or renting a house in the town. The six little towns on Martha's Vineyard don't even give each other reciprocity.

Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, July 4 (Photo by Frank Gruber)

Here in California, private property extends only to the average high tide line. Taking advantage of that, the Coastal Act guarantees access to the wet sand to everyone. While this is a guarantee that is only theoretical in many places, we're not used to seeing "beach tag checkers" like they have back east. We also have numerous large public beaches, owned by counties or the state.

The saving grace back east is that they have a lot more coast. Huge California, with 163,707 square miles and 35 million people, has 1,100 miles of coastline. Little Massachusetts, 10,555 square miles and 6.4 million people, has 1,500. Martha's Vineyard itself has 125 miles of coast -- more than Los Angeles and Orange Counties combined.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because two weeks ago the Palisades Beach Property Owners Association and a local individual resident brought suit against the City of Santa Monica to stop the City from further development of the public beach club at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, the old Marion Davies estate. (see story)

Santa Monica's beach sits right in the middle of the most public and accessible beaches in California. They are immensely important not only for our pleasure and our local economy, but for our very culture. Home of Muscle Beach and Dogtown, the Pier, the Carousel, and long-gone amusement parks and pleasure domes, not to mention the Gold Coast -- a stage on which Marion Davies was the leading lady -- the beach in Santa Monica has had an inordinate influence on the world.

I have written a lot already about 415 PCH and I won't repeat myself about how important it will be to have a public beach club there, and how the City has already conceded to much for the few contentious neighbors. But I will say something about the litigation.

It's a joke. A brazen attempt to bully the City and buy time in the hopes that delay will kill the beach club.

Even if you are not a lawyer, if you read the Complaint (accessible through the Friends of 415 PCH website you will see that the causes of action are rather ephemeral. Three of the four grounds for suing are based on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The fourth is based on Prop. S, the Santa Monica law that limits hotel and restaurant development along the beach.

Since the City can ultimately cure CEQA problems (assuming there are any) with a combination of further environmental review and statements of overriding consideration, and since the City could ultimately cure Prop. S problems (assuming there are any) by floating an amendment that the voters are sure to approve, substantively the litigation is hopeless.

Hopeless, that is, if the City and the Annenberg Foundation hold fast and don't let themselves get steamrollered. So far, the Annenberg representatives have said all the right things and notwithstanding early fears that they might not like controversy, they appear to be in for the long haul.

Which leaves the City, namely City Council. Will the Council hold the line?

Back in May when Council approved the project, I was concerned as I watched the hearing on television. The council members seemed to go overboard in expressing their goodwill toward the few neighbors who were threatening to sue. I got steamed when Council Member Ken Genser proposed an amendment requiring the City to get Coastal Commission approval for any changes to the facility or its operation. The idea was to assure the neighbors that the City could not unilaterally change the conditions it agreed to.

But I cooled down when I thought more about it. I realized that the City would require Coastal Commission approval of changes in any case. Council Member Genser's amendment was smart, because it made explicit what should have been obvious -- that the City did not operate in a regulatory vacuum.

Now that the neighbors have rejected the Council's good faith gesture, I hope the council members realize that there is no more reason to coddle, and that their initial direction to staff to take care of the neighbors after the public design process had been concluded was a mistake.

But the problem with lawsuits is that the Council goes into closed session to discuss them. The public doesn't know what actions the council members are taking, or what they are telling the City Attorney to do, until it's too late to change the Council's collective mind.

Since the council members have a pathological need to try to make every complaining resident happy, it's important that during this phase supporters of the beach club keep the pressure on -- to make sure the council members know that they will make many more residents happy by not caving in to the plaintiffs' demands.

Although I missed the Friends of 415 PCH's July 4 beach party, somehow I don't think this will be a problem.

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