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Laguna Beach seawall controversy continues despite removal order – Daily News

More than three years after the state Coastal Commission ordered its removal, the illegal seawall protecting a beachfront house in Laguna Beach is still standing.

Fruitless legal challenges by the owner ensued until hitting a dead end March 25, when the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

That started the clock ticking on a particularly dramatic case of the commission prioritizing public beach over private property. Owner Jerry Stanley then had 60 days to remove the seawall and any portion of the house that would not be saved.

The removal deadline, May 24, has come and gone.

“Things are always more complicated than they seem,” said commission attorney Alex Helperin, who acknowledged the commission’s legal and enforcement staff frustration with Stanley’s latest delay.

The seawall is at odds with the state’s 1976 Coastal Act, which empowers the Coastal Commission to protect coastal resources and public access to the coast. That’s because seawalls accelerate beach erosion; waves pounding against a seawall wash away the sand at its base, causing the beach to shrink and reducing the public’s recreational options.

Additionally, sea-level rise poses a growing threat to beaches as the ocean is expected to overtake sands currently enjoyed by the public. The commission’s preference is to allow the beaches to migrate landward as the ocean rises, a strategy sometimes referred to as managed retreat.

Behind the delays

Complications with the seawall removal arose earlier this year when commission staff was told by Stanley that there was a support wall — a “shoring wall” — behind the seawall. The shoring wall provides crucial support to the house itself, which is located at 11 Lagunita Drive and perched above the sand on Victoria Beach.

That prompted the commission to extend the May 24 removal deadline to allow Stanley time assess what portions of the house, if any, could be safely preserved once the seawall and shoring wall were removed.

“We didn’t want the whole house to collapse,” Helperin said. “We said, ‘We’ll let you figure out what you’re going to do with the house.’ We were hoping they would get back to us promptly.”

Commission staff specifically asked Stanley to submit an analysis by Aug. 23 detailing what parts of the house would be threatened by waves without the seawall and shoring wall, and how any structure remaining on the site would conform with the Laguna Beach’s Local Coastal Plan. Beach cities create Local Coastal Plans to ensure that coastal development complies with the Coastal Act.

Instead, Stanley’s attorney David A. Goldberg wrote the commission on Aug. 23 that his client intended to raise the house up on stilts in its current location, according to Helperin. Goldberg did not provide the requested analysis or how it would comply with the Local Coastal Plan, Helperin said.

While elevating the house in its current location could make it safer from the ocean, an Oct. 22 commission letter to Goldberg said the pilings themselves would have to meet setback requirements in the Local Coastal Plan. Those requirements are far more restrictive than those in place when the house was built in 1952. The setbacks must account for future sea-level rise and be a safe distance from the bluff’s edge.

The building is nearly on the edge of the bluff, a location that appears unlikely to meet the setback requirements.

“The whole idea of putting it up on stilts is not consistent with the Laguna Beach Local Coastal Plan,” Helperin said. “It’s definitely not the preferred way to build along the coast, for structural and aesthetic reasons.”

While an April letter from the commission to Stanley cited a government code that enables $6,000 per day penalties for non-compliance with the commission’s order, Helperin said the commission is not pursuing those fines at this time.

Goldberg did not dispute Helperin’s account. And in an email response to the Orange County Register, Goldberg did not offer specifics about when and how Stanley would respond to the commission’s demand for a site analysis and how any proposal would conform with the Local Coastal Plan.

“Jerry Stanley remains committed to working collaboratively with Coastal Commission staff to implement the requirements of the commission’s enforcement order,” Goldberg wrote.

“While some of those requirements have proven more complicated to address than anticipated, Mr. Stanley looks forward to continuing to work cooperatively with commission staff towards resolving these issues, so that the property may accommodate a home for him and his family that is consistent with the order and the Coastal Act.”

A seawall’s origin

In 2005, an emergency commission permit for the seawall was issued to protect the original 1952 dwelling from an immediate threat from big winter waves. In 2015, the commission rejected a major remodeling application for the home but issued a longer-term seawall permit with the condition that it would be removed if there was new development on the lot.

That provision is consistent with the commission’s practice of not approving seawalls for new construction, part of its policy to allow ocean waters and beaches to migrate landward.

Shortly after the remodeling application was rejected the owners sold the 4,900-square-foot house to the next door neighbors, Jeffrey and Tracy Katz. The couple paid $14 million for what they planned to be an investment property.

The Katzes received city permits for what they called “repair and maintenance.” However, court documents and photographs would detail extensive removal and replacement of walls, roofing, plumbing and wiring. The Katzes said the work increased the value of the home to $25 million.


The city’s approval of the work was retroactively appealed to the Coastal Commission, which unanimously agreed it constituted new development — a finding upheld by the courts when the Katzes sued in a failed attempt to reverse the decision.

In March 2020, amid the legal battle, the Katzes sold the home for $11 million to Stanley, according to real estate records. The price reflected the uncertain status of the seawall and home. The 2020 property assessment lists the property’s land value at $14.8 million and its structures at $1.35 million.

There was no sign that the home was inhabited during a recent visit by the Orange County Register.

“We’re not sure what happens now,” Helperin said. “We need to hear back from them.”

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