The California Coastal Commission handed down a $4.2 million fine Thursday on owners of an expensive oceanfront rental on the Malibu coast for failing to remove a gate, fence, stairway and deck that block public access to the beach.
The fine, a first for the commission, follows a nearly decade-long legal battle over the blocked public easement, which denied access to sand along Las Flores Beach. Commissioners called the case involving Dr. Warren M. Lent and his wife, Henny, a "very egregious" and "flagrant violation"of state law, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"This represents an attitude we often see in Malibu -- that the shore is our private backyard," said Coastal Commissioner Mark Vargas.
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The homeowners failed to remove a commission request to remove a gate, fence, stairway and deck that prevented visitors from getting to the beach, according to the commission. The structures blocked an easement required by a permit issued to the property's previous owner in the late 1970s.
At that time, the commission did not have a way to enforce a plan that provided public access to California's beaches, but that changed in 2014 when state lawmakers granted the agency the authority to fine property owners. The commission and homeowners usually find a solution to avoid financial penalties, making the Lent case unusual.
"You're either going to let people down your stairs or you're not," said Commission Chair Dayna Bochco. "They have been playing very serious games and that's what led us here."
The law allows the commission to levy fines of up to $11,250 per day for access violations. The financial penalty usually acts as a deterrent, according to the agency, which said it has resolved ab out 50 access violations since July 2014.
The Lents bought their house in 2002. Instead of making the requested fixes, agency officials said the couple has made money by renting the house out for about $1,000 a night and advertising on real estate websites that it has access to a private beach.
The commission notified the Lents of the violation in 2007 and logged more than 30 letters about the issues, according to the agency.
The Lents said they never intended to block visitors from the beach. Their attorney told the Times the fines were not necessary because the couple did not install the structures.
"We were not trying to block the easement, but trying in good faith to resolve the situation," Lent told the commission, the Times reported.
His clients were willing to pay a $100,000 fine and remove the structures, he told the Times.
The Coastal Conservancy and Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority already have a plan for accessing the beach, but that proposal remains stalled due to the staircase and gate.
The commission also ok'd a settlement with the Malibu Beach Hotel at Carbon Beach, aka "Billionaires' Beach." The ruling requires the owners to install two stairways to the sand and a crosswalk near the hotel. They also must pay $200,000 in fines and $300,000 to a conservation agency, according to the Times.
The access issue has simmered for years along the Malibu coastline, where celebrity homes overlook the Pacific Ocean. This week's moves will help provide public access to two beaches, but many public easements remain closed, with residents hiring security guards, putting up fake no-parking signs and blocking access ways.
"Malibu has some of the most beautiful stretches of the California coast and for the public to be robbed of any part of their beach is a serious violation of the Coastal Act," said California Coastal Commission Acting Executive Director John Ainsworth. "I hope this sends a message to other property owners thinking of blocking access that our commission takes this very seriously."