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Solana Beach property owners sue over seawall recreation fee

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Seawalls protect homes near Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach.
Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune

A group of bluff-top property owners has filed a lawsuit against Solana Beach and the state Coastal Commission alleging that the recreational fees the city charges for building a seawall are excessive.

“This fee -- on top of all the other fees required by the city, CCC and State Lands Commission (on some parts of the beach) -- is especially difficult for some of the city’s long-term oceanfront property owners to bear,” said Arie Spangler, an attorney representing the The Beach and Bluff Conservancy.

The goal of the fee is to help offset the long-term effects of seawalls, which protect private property but speed up the erosion of the public beach. With a smaller beach, there’s less space for recreational opportunities such as playing volleyball, picnicking and walking on the sand.

Revenue from the fee would go toward efforts to improve access to the beach with things such as stairways and parking lots, or to increase the size of the beach through programs such as sand replenishment.

Solana Beach is at the forefront of the issue because it is the only coastal city in San Diego County without a Local Coastal Program certified by the Coastal Commission. The recreation fee is a relatively new requirement in the LCP, and other cities have LCPs approved years ago that were not required to have one.

Cities with an LCP can sign off on most construction projects, such as new homes and seawalls, that meet the program’s requirements at the local level without going to the state commission.

Solana Beach’s efforts to get its LCP certified have been frustrated by a number of issues, most of them related to seawalls. The city has 1.7 miles of coast, all atop a 60-foot-tall bluff and mostly armored by seawalls.

Solana Beach has been charging an interim recreation fee of $1,000 per linear foot for seawall construction permits for the past 10 years while it works out a final formula for the actual amount. Most of the seawalls are about 50 feet long.

The city had proposed a formula that resulted in an amount that started at $431 per foot in 2016, rising annually to $610 per foot in 2026. However, the Coastal Commission said that was too low, and late last year Solana Beach accepted the commission’s suggested modifications that almost doubled the fee, rising annually to $1,192 per foot in 2026.

“Our clients believe that the CCC’s decision to double this fee without any solid reason or economically sound evidence was an abuse of the CCC’s authority and discretion,” Spangler said in an email last week.

The owners group has fought seawall fees and regulations for years, while groups such as the Surfrider Foundation support them.

Surfrider member and Solana Beach resident Jim Jaffee said in an email this week that members of the property owners group are “obstructionists.”

“They have filed serial lawsuits, all unsuccessful,” Jaffee said. “They are costing the city and public precious resources that could be used to improve the beach.”

The formula used by the city and the Coastal Commission to assess the recreational value of a day at the beach is based on many factors, including property values, hotel room rates, prevailing wages and more.

“It is difficult because a day at the beach is not something that is for sale, but it holds tremendous value,” Jaffee said.

The city and the commission agreed that - for their calculations - a day at the beach had a recreational value of $35.56 per person in the summer and $21 in winter. That’s a bargain compared to a $56 ticket to the San Diego Zoo or a $99 lift ticket at a Big Bear ski resort, Jaffe said.

The Beach and Bluff Conservancy was formed in 1998 by bluff-top property owners seeking to preserve their right to built seawalls. The California Coastal Commission has long taken the position that because seawalls hasten the erosion of public beaches, the builders should pay fees to help mitigate that loss.

Private property owners say seawalls have public benefits, primarily that they prevent the unstable bluffs from collapsing and injuring people on the beach.

Spangler, employed by the Jon Corn Law Firm, said the lawsuit is in its early stages, and it may not be heard in court for up to a year.

--- Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune