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Laguna Beach

 Volume 13, Issue 98  |  December 7, 2021

Split Coastal Commission approves Surf and Sand Resort renovations, after-the-fact permit 


A split California Coastal Commission last week approved renovations and after-the-fact foundation work at a local hotel.

The CCC vote 6-5 is in favor of a Coastal Development Permit for the project planned for Surf and Sand Resort, located at 1555 South Coast Highway. Commissioners raised concerns about the hotel planning for sea level rise, employee parking, and – the key cause of opposition – the hotel’s request for after-the-fact approval of unpermitted work on a pavilion/terrace area and the foundation on one of the buildings.

Other issues were addressed in 10 special conditions that covered beach activities, construction, public rights, assumption of risk, clarification that the CDP does not authorize development to occur within the terrace, and, at the direction of commissioners, lights, beach storage, the staircase, sea level rise impact study and an employee public transit plan.

Although, the conditions didn’t quite justify some of the violations for a number of commissioners.

While she appreciates the discussion and the conditions are reasonable, it’s hard to support the project, given the after-the-fact request, said Commissioner Linda Escalante, who was one of the dissenting votes.

“These after-the-fact things really give me enormous heartburn, especially when I see these structures so at risk of sea level rise,” Escalante said.

The project mostly includes repair and maintenance activities that would otherwise be exempt from coastal development permit requirements if not for its location on and within 50 feet of a coastal bluff, according to the CCC staff report. It includes non-structural work to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act and health and safety codes and some non-structural cosmetic changes. 

It also included after-the-fact approval of an addition of 37% to the foundation of the spa building. 

Work approved by last week’s action includes expanding the hotel lobby, located in the towers building, by converting two adjacent hotel guest rooms. The expanded lobby area will be remodeled, replacing all interior finishes, adding an ADA-compliant restroom, providing an ADA-compliant check-in area and employee areas will also be made to conform to ADA requirements. 

The number of parking spaces on site will remain 216, but the parking spaces will be reconfigured to accommodate seven new ADA accessible parking spaces (currently there are no ADA spaces). The project will add two motorcycle parking spaces and a new bike rack. Twelve electric vehicle charging stations (5% of the total parking spaces) will be provided. 

Coastal staff recommended approval with nine special conditions regarding: No addition, demolition, or modifications to structural elements (other than the previous spa building foundation work); no construction activities on the beach adjacent to the subject site; all construction parking be accommodated on the subject site; all lighting to be shielded and down directed to avoid light spillage and transparent balconies will use bird safe material; implementation of water quality Best Management Practices during construction; only the work currently proposed is approved by this CDP and any changes will require an amendment or new CDP; preservation of any public rights that exist or may exist on the site; the applicant’s assumption of the risk of development; and recordation of a deed restriction indicating that the permit is subject to restrictions on the use and enjoyment of the property and imposing the special conditions of the permit as covenants, conditions and restrictions on the use and enjoyment of the property.

Split Coastal Commission Surf and Sand resort

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of CA Coastal Commission

Surf and Sand Resort 

In a November 17 addendum, coastal staff recommended a few changes and an additional special condition. 

In a change to condition eight, it’s noted that future encroachment on public trust lands may be subject to the State Lands Commission’s (or other trustee agency) leasing approval, and any future encroachment of the spa building foundation addition approved by the CDP must be removed unless the Coastal Commission determines that the encroachment is legally permissible pursuant to the Coastal Act and authorizes it to remain.

Staff also added a 10th special condition that requires the applicant to submit two revised plans that demonstrate that the CDP does not authorize development to occur within the terrace area located between the Surfside building and the pool deck area and seaward of the Catalina building, including but not limited to replacement of exterior paving, replacement of stair rails and installation of the ADA lift at this time.

An alternative location for installation of the ADA lift may be reflected on the final plans if it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the CCC executive director that the location would have no impact on coastal resources and that development necessary to accommodate the lift would not result in the project becoming a major remodel.

They must also submit plans that show that the existing development located within the terrace area is clearly labeled: “This development is not authorized by any coastal development permit” or shall be deleted from the plans and replaced with a note indicating “not a part.” 

The additional special condition also notes that any development in that terrace area, including removal of unpermitted development, requires either an amendment to the CDP or a separate coastal development permit.

Following direction from commissioners provided during the discussion last week, and approved by the commission’s vote, staff will also incorporate into the recommendation requirements regarding: Prohibiting storage of chairs and umbrellas on the beach, adding signage warning people to stay off the bluff, an analysis of sea level rise impacts, resiliency and adaptation plan within the next five years, and an analysis of a transportation management plan and provide employee public transit passes.

Split Coastal Commission Surf and Sand site plans

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Rendering by WATG/Courtesy of CA Coastal Commission

Site plans for the Surf and Sand Resort 

In 2018, the city approved a Local Coastal Development permit for renovations to the resort hotel, which was later appealed to the Coastal Commission. On April 11, 2019, commissioners found substantial issue with the project. Last week was the de novo hearing for the appeal.

The spa building was originally constructed in 1949, said CAA Planning CEO Shawna Schaffner, representing Surf and Sand Resort.

In 2001, the city approved building permits for foundation work and found no intensification of use as the building changed from the retail and office to spa, she said. At the time, the foundation work included 37% of the foundation area, not constituting a major remodel, Schaffner noted. 

Schaffner later reiterated that the spa building project was approved through the city’s LCP. It was not an attempt to avoid the CDP process, she said.

“While we recognize the obligation to obtain a CDP, it is not that we were trying to avoid that. We went to the local authority, we sought the appropriate permits,” Schaffner said. “We think that after 20 years an after-the-fact permit is appropriate here.”

The wedding pavilion was authorized in a past permit and building permits were approved by the city in 1998. Schaffner said they were alerted just last week that the site plans the permits relied upon may not have been correct and that the wedding pavilion may have been constructed in a different configuration. Special condition 10 addresses the issue, she noted. 

Everything else in the CDP are small changes, mostly for maintenance reasons.

“The project is extensive in that the repairs occur resort-wide,” Schaffner said, quoting the CCC staff report, “but the work is minor in terms of complexity and the degree of change.”

The city fully supports the project and the Coastal staff’s recommendations, said Community Development Director Marc Wiener. He agreed that it’s generally a maintenance and repair work project. 

“We have an aging building stock in the city and we think it’s important that those buildings are brought up to code,” and that they’re safe and beneficial for both visitors and residents, he said.

Coastal staff has done a good job in taking a pragmatic approach to addressing those issues and how to make it work with the building, he said. 

“It’s really unfortunate that we’ve had so many appeals over the past two years,” Wiener said, “but I think we’ve made really good progress in working with your staff on addressing past issues that have come up.”

Mayor Bob Whalen also spoke during the meeting and said that the project was thoroughly evaluated under the local LCP when the city council approved it. 

Approval of this CDP is important and will allow necessary repairs to the hotel that will provide for a variety of code-compliant improvements, including related to fire safety and energy efficiency, Whalen said. It will also implement a variety of ADA improvements, which is an important issue that the city encourages property owners to focus on, he added.

Each of the issues raised in the appeal has been thoroughly addressed and the recent condition related to the wedding pavilion can be resolved post-hearing. The applicant is willing to work in that direction, he said. 

“As a city, we’ve very much looking forward to these improvements proceeding,” Whalen said. 

Split Coastal Commission Surf and Sand terrace and stairs

Click on photo for a larger image

Provided by Surf and Sand/Courtesy of CA Coastal Commission

Surf and Sand beach view, showing the terrace and stairs to the resort

Although not everyone was as enthusiastically on board.

Councilmember George Weiss also spoke, noting that he loves the Surf and Sand Hotel, as do most people in town, and agreed with most of what Whalen said. 

“But I do think that everyone should be held accountable to the Coastal Act and its conditions,” regardless of how big or small the project is or whether it’s residential or commercial, Weiss said. 

There should be a reasonable correction to past unpermitted work, he added. 

A number of other speakers opposed the after-the-fact approval for the unpermitted work. 

It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to seek for permission, said Danielle Wilson, a research analyst for UNITE HERE Local 11. Several members of the union also spoke or wrote to the commission in opposition of the project, including some comments about encroachment issues and an intensification of use when the building went from retail and office to spa use. 

“(It) will only embolden developers to continue to making piecemeal changes to their hotels in the hopes that we, or the public, or the Coastal Commission will never notice,” Wilson said, or the approved after-the-fact permits will encourage them to simply “bake it into the cost of doing business.”

It’s outrageous to approve the expansion of the wedding pavilion onto the coastal bluff with the conditions suggested, Wilson said. It will send the wrong message to other developers, she added. 

The resort should pay restitution through contributions to local environmental restoration projects, suggested one local resident.

Local resident and appellant Sharon Fudge said Surf and Sand started as a simple and small hotel, then grew to a medium-sized hotel and later added more buildings, “making a bad situation worse.”

Her husband Mark Fudge agreed, adding that the previous permits leave a lot out of the plans.

“It’s obvious that the permit is incomplete,” Mark Fudge said. “They’re asking you to make improvements to rooms that we don’t have any idea when or how they were accomplished and when they were permitted.”


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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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