.Coastal Commission Voted To Fine Rio Del Mar Homeowners $5.3 Million

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) voted unanimously on Thursday to issue a cease and desist order to the Rio Del Mar Beach Island Homeowners Association, and homeowners Guarav Singh and Sonal Puri for blocking public access to a 786-foot-walkway at 202-230 Beach Drive, Rio Del Mar. 

If the obstacles are not removed the CCC would consider going to court to enforce the cease and desist order, wrote CCC Assistant Chief Counsel Alex Helperin in an email. If the HOA does not file a “public walkway clearance plan” by one week from the ruling, a fine of $6,000 a day per infraction will be levied, according to the order.

CCC fined the HOA $2.8 million for blocking access to the walkway. Another $2 million in fines were added for not “maintaining native plants atop the revetment, among other CDP (coastal development permit) violations,” according to a staff report presented to the CCC at the Thursday evening. $4.8 million and $500,000 fines were levied on the Homeowner’s Association and Singh & Puri, respectively.

Singh and Puri of 202 Beach Dr. were ordered to remove the seawall in front of their property, the fence blocking the pathway, and other obstacles to public access. The HOA was requested to remove the fence blocking the southern entry, caution tape, and barricades.

204 Beach Drive was exempt from the orders as the homeowner has cooperated with the CCC. 

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Many of the basic facts concerning the walkway’s history are in contention.

The CCC claims that the 27 home-stretch failed to keep the sea-facing path open to the public after being mandated to allow public access in a 1980 coastal development permit (CDP). 

In the winter of 1979-80, a storm destroyed an eight-foot-wide chunk of the promenade which the HOA sought to rebuild with a permit for a revetment, an embankment to protect the homes. The HOA applied for and received an encroachment permit to build the revetment on the 37-foot public easement in front of the homes, according to the CCC.

Patrick Richard, representing the HOA and Singh & Puri at the meeting, disputes the existence of the easement in front of the homes by 1980 and claims that the 1980 CDP does not explicitly require public access. 

“You will not find public access in any condition [of the CDP],” said Richard.

The CCC argues that because a public easement was “universally accepted” in 1980, it is not written out again as a provision, and moreover public access is inferred by the issuing of an encroachment permit. Public access is not written out anywhere, but “incorporation by reference is a standard legal process,” said CCC Assistant Chief Counsel Alex Helperin. 

In 2018, the County removed obstacles blocking the pathway, and the HOA sued, claiming they owned the walkway. Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann ruled in favor of the HOA in 2022, and the fence was put back, despite CCC warnings. CCC staff says that this ruling does not pertain to their decision because the question of ownership is unrelated to public access. 

The CCC could have sought a penalty of $24 million for the HOA and $3 million for Singh and Puri, but they used their discretion to levy a more moderate punishment, said Robert Moddelmog, head enforcer in the case.

Some commissioners thought the fines imposed were not enough.

“This has been a big issue for this community for a longtime. In the past, we have had other attempts at restricting public access,” said Commissioner Justin Cummings who also serves as County Supervisor. “I do think that the penalties are really light given that our staff has tried to really engage in an amicable solution and tried to not get us to this point. I think a lot of public dollars have been wasted on staff time.”

1 COMMENT

  1. To issue building permits for this location was a total disaster and possibly traces back to times when dollars were more important than coastal protection and preservation. That applies to many homes built on cliffs of Rio and struggling to survive there, so there we have it.

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