One of Newport Beach’s most famous landmarks is The Wedge – a place where, when the conditions are right, monster surf pounds the shore and bodysurfers and surfers alike take on everything Mother Nature can throw at them.
Close by is another Newport landmark, the Newport Beach boardwalk. The 2.9-mile concrete bike- and walkway along the ocean side of the Peninsula comes to an abrupt end just past ‘E’ Street, well short of The Wedge and the harbor jetty, where the oceanfront path would meet its logical end.
According to local historians, the Newport boardwalk was first built of wood in 1918 and then redone with concrete in the late 1930s.
The beach beyond the boardwalk’s end has seen changes, too. The size of the beach grew in the years after the Newport Harbor jetty was built in the early1900s. The other change over the years has been the addition of multimillion-dollar beachfront houses and estates that make up this exclusive and iconic part Newport Beach’s coastline.
Now, at the southern end of the Newport boardwalk, you walk onto beachfront sand and into the heart of a renewed 20-year battle. The battle is about who has the right to use and control the beach that lies directly in front of the beachside homes, the homeowners or the public, in the form of the city and state?
The city of Newport Beach and the state of California say the answer to that question is simple – the public owns the sand and has to right to use and control it.
Homeowners along this stretch of beach don’t exactly see it that way.
Over the years they have seeded lawns, installed landscaping and even put in playground equipment and other amenities to extend their little piece of beachfront paradise out onto the sand.
The state Coastal Commission this month told them that’s all illegal and it needs to go – soon – or else. The edict stirred a storm of controversy.
One reason the homeowners feel strongly is city of Newport Beach has seemingly turned a blind eye to the encroachments for more than two decades.
Although the city owns the boardwalk right-of-way and the beach out to the high-tide line, it has done little over the years to stem the tide of homeowners staking their claim to what is clearly and legally city property and the public’s beach.
Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff, has said the city has tried to inform the public the beach was public. A few years ago signs were posted in the area informing the public that what seemed to be private property was in fact public beach. Those signs are gone, but the encroachments, if anything, have grown.
It seems the city has done little more than that over the years.
Why that is, is not exactly clear.
(The Independent sought comment from Kiff and city spokesperson Tara Finnegan about this issue, but they did not respond to several requests.)
Back in October of 1990, the city adopted a policy that was supposed to control what happened on its beach, and especially the beach between the boardwalk’s end and the Wedge. The policy clearly says what homeowners in that area could and could not do to “encroach” on the public beach. It has had little effect.
The policy is called L-12.
The Independent reviewed a copy of the L-12 policy and it says:
“Prohibited Encroachments. ….
“Encroachments, including irrigation systems, and improvements are prohibited oceanward of any ocean front parcel from a point 250 feet southeast of E Street to Channel Road, provided existing trees which have been planted and maintained in conformance with City Council policy, and ground cover such as ice plant or indigenous plants are not considered to be an encroachment, and will not require a permit pursuant to this policy, but the City reserves the right to remove, trim or otherwise, control the type and extent of any such landscaping.”
The policy goes on to say:
“Any existing encroachment or improvement for which no application has been filed on or before May 31, 1992, and any new encroachment or improvement for which no application is filed prior to installation is prohibited.
“Any new or existing encroachment or improvement which, on or after July 1, 1992, is not in conformance with this policy is prohibited.”
It seems the policy is very clear. The reality, however, is a lot different.
Back in 1990, it was proposed to extend the boardwalk to its logical end at the jetty, but the homeowners from E Street to the Wedge were adamantly opposed. At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported extensively on the issue. Homeowners were so opposed to the idea of extending the boardwalk they gave up any claim to encroach on the beachfront in return for dropping the plan.
But the encroachments have continued unabated since.
Richard Spurzem, who owns a home on the beach in the area now at the center of the controversy, has not installed any special additions to his beachfront area.
Nonetheless, he says, the city sent him a letter in 2006 demanding he remove a rock that sat in front of his house on the beach.
“I don’t know how the rock got there,” Spurzem told the Independent on Thursday, adding, “It’s still there today. … I never got anything else from the city since.”
Whether or not the homeowners will heed the latest Coastal Commission directive and what the city’s role in this new version of “whose beach is it, anyway?” still remains to be seen.
But if history is any guide to this two-decade-old controversy, homeowners in the area are probably thinking the city will take a hands-off approach