Published 8/29/2007 on the District Weekly
Long Beach officials are aware many Peninsula residents have built out onto the public beach. They just don’t do anything about it.
The Alamitos Peninsula was lifted from ancient wetlands through the most exceptional kind of public-private partnership: the idle play of Mother Nature combined with some impressively focused works of human engineering (dredging). Over the years and against significant odds, this mile-long spit of sand between Alamitos Bay and the Pacific Ocean has come to epitomize the dream-come-true of Southern California beachfront living.
Anywhere else, its jumble of luxu-fonky architecture—from glass-encased mini-mansions to clapboard cottages with blistered paint, all shoehorned onto tiny lots—might be an eyesore. But in the squinty bright light of almost-endless summer, amid the white sand, the blue sea, and the cloud-flecked sky—okay, and surrounded by all those shiny late-model cars—they seem like magical sand castles.
There’s no drawbridge, and locals appear to have stopped talking about installing a gate across Ocean Boulevard, the only street in and out of the Alamitos Peninsula. But the neighborhood is nonetheless quiet and secluded, which is the way most residents—including former Mayor Beverly O’Neill and former City Councilman Frank Colonna—seem to prefer it.
No public buses rumble through the Alamitos Peninsula. No tourist shuttles, either. The water taxi station is on the other side of the bay. The wonderful Shoreline Pedestrian/Bicycle Path, which sets off eastward from downtown Long Beach on an egalitarian journey along the beach that gives the city its name, stops at 54th Place—exactly where the Alamitos Peninsula begins.
Meanwhile, the wants and needs of Alamitos Peninsula residents are always carefully considered, and sometimes extravagantly indulged, by Long Beach city government.
It’s news when the city council opposes the prevailing opinion on the Peninsula, as happened last month when it authorized $100,000 to study the cost-effectiveness of reconfiguring the Long Beach Breakwater. Although the only dissenting vote was cast by Gary DeLong, whose Third District includes the Alamitos Peninsula, every councilmember gave sympathetic lip service to Peninsula residents’ concerns that the study was a waste of money and that altering the Breakwater would allow the ocean to wash away their homes.
Otherwise, city officials vigilantly look out for Peninsula residents. Up to a quarter-million dollars a year is spent to dump thousands of truckloads of sand onto the ocean-facing beach as protection against the possibility of damaging ocean storms.
“We bring in between 60,000 and 70,000 cubic yards of sand—that would be about 7,000 dumptrucks full,” says Dennis Eschen, who oversees the annual operation for the Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine. “We’ve been doing it since 1994, and we’ve spent between $100,000 and $250,000 a year.”
On the other hand, officials conveniently look away when residents enhance their homes in ways that sometimes spill over private property lines and onto public land.
A 2003 land survey commissioned by the Parks and Recreation Department—and acquired by The District through the Public Records Act—found that 31 homes on the Alamitos Peninsula encroached onto public beach in violation of the California Coastal Act. But the detailed report was quietly filed away.
“There is some encroachment, for sure, but we didn’t see any areas where people were inhibiting public access to the beach,” says Phil Hester, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “There were no official complaints from anybody, so it was nothing we followed up with.”
The Alamitos Peninsula’s castles in the sand even have a moat, sort of—the water that presses against the land on three sides . . . which, you know, is what makes it a peninsula, remember? And alligators. Oh, it’s definitely got alligators.
No Trespassing: This home on the Alamitos Peninsula extends 25.8 feet into public land, according to a 2003 survey commissioned by the City of Long Beach. Its allegedly illegal features include a huge concrete box that has been constructed to support a green front lawn protected by a wall and glass wind screen.
On the 10th floor of a downtown Long Beach highrise, in a semicircular-view office that’s crammed with cardboard filing boxes, Andrew Willis is poring over the pages of the city-funded Peninsula Survey prepared by the Signal Hill firm of Dulin & Boynton in spring of 2003.
“This is the first I’ve heard of this survey,” says Willis, 30, the enforcement officer for the South Coast District of the California Coastal Commission. He looks young and laid back in his casual clothes and closely-cropped hair, but he’s actually an attorney with seven-month-old twin daughters. He’s friendly, but he doesn’t smile much. He isn’t smiling now.
“I’ll need some time to analyze this,” says Willis, referring to diagrams showing 31 homes encroaching over their property lines and onto the public beach. The violations range from a single step measuring less than one foot to a patio extending nearly 50 feet.
“But I can tell you that any infringement of private development on public coastal area is a fairly serious violation in our eyes.”
Frank Colonna, a successful local realtor who represented the Alamitos Peninsula and the rest of the Third District on the Long Beach City Council when the survey was taken—and whose home is one of those in violation—doesn’t take it nearly so seriously.
“It depends on what you call encroachment,” Colonna contends. “As long as those homeowners weren’t impeding public access or use of the beach, our policy was that it was OK.”
But Long Beach city officials don’t get to make policy on this matter. Beaches are state land; they belong to everybody in California. Cities hold coastal land in trust for the state. They patrol it, maintain it, and maybe staff it with lifeguards. But since 1972, when voters passed the Coastal Zone Conservation Act, the California Coastal Commission has overseen the planning, development, and access to over 1,000 miles of state coastline. Period.
“Just because something may be an underused section of coastline now doesn’t mean it won’t become more used in the future,” Willis explained. “Perhaps it has a small, devoted following. Perhaps it might become more used if those infringements weren’t there. We try to maximize coastal access.”
The laissez-faire philosophy expressed by Colonna and Hester doesn’t cut it with Assistant City Attorney Michael J. Mais, either.
“The point is that the people in that survey are encroaching on someone else’s property—in this case, public property—and that is trespassing,” says Mais. “There aren’t what you would call ‘penalties’ for trespassing; the penalty would be to remove the encroachment.”
That’s pretty much the bottom line for the Coastal Commission, too, says Willis—and the Commission’s Website provides plenty of precedent. “It would be a major action to have all these removed,” he winces.
The District contacted a smattering of property-owners who have staked out extensions on the public beach. All claimed they were unaware of their violations.
That’s easy to believe in the case of Ronald Selvester, who installed a single step at the edge of his Bayshore Walk property to make it easier to get onto the beach.
“I’ve lived here 30 years, and I’ve never heard a word from anybody about that being inappropriate,” said Selvester. “If I had, I probably would have tried to figure out a way to cut a hole in the deck and walk through.”
However, at the eastern end of the Alamitos Bay residences, a home the survey said is owned by Thomas and Joyce Rumsey features a brick walkway that occupies 49.4 feet of public land and a block wall that encroaches 7.7 feet.
At the western end, where residences abut the US Sailing Center, public access to the beach is impeded by an 11.7-foot long concrete wall extending from a home owned by Gerald and Patricia Miller.
The situation is more egregious next door, where huge concrete supports have been built to support an elevated lawn—surrounded by tile and a wall—that extends 25.8 feet from a home that the survey says belongs to Mary Rozier. As a finishing touch, the addition features a “No Trespassing” sign.
Mary Rozier apparently doesn’t live in the house and didn’t answer the phone at her Belmont Shore home. The man who did perhaps understandably didn’t want to give out too much information. “I don’t even know you,” he said.
But he said Ms. Rozier was only one of a group of investors in the property. He was surprised to hear about the city land survey. And he insisted he had no idea that the 25-plus feet of tile, grass, and wall represented an encroachment onto public land. “Really,” he said, “we weren’t even aware of it.”
Frank Colonna owns a home on the ocean side of the peninsula, so far east that it’s even beyond the end of the boardwalk. It’s a beautiful two-story structure that evokes a sense of easy Mediterranean living—especially the deck and patio outside, which are hung with a string of lights.
But those accoutrements are illegal, according to the survey, which shows that they exceed Colonna’s property line—the concrete patio by 8.1 feet and the wood deck by 12.7 feet.
Despite his real-estate background and although he was a sitting city councilman at the time, Colonna asserts that he neither knew he’d encroached on public land nor that it had been documented in a city-funded report.
“I never saw that survey,” Colonna says. “I know that Parks and Recreation surveyed homeowners in Naples, where there was a controversy over whether or not residents on Sorrento Avenue were allowing beach ingress or egress. I saw that survey. And I understood that there might be an additional study of the Alamitos Peninsula. But I never saw that one.”
Parks and Rec director Hester confirmed that the Alamitos Peninsula study was a ramification of complaints across the bay in Naples, where a survey revealed violations that forced some residents to remove encroachments.
“Later, during one of our regular meetings with the Alamitos Bay Beach Preservation Group—a neighborhood association on the Peninsula—somebody asked if there were problems on their side of the bay,” Hester recalled. “So we decided to do a survey and find out. When we got the results, we met with city management to show them the results.”
An employee in one of the city departments dealing with the issue at the time said those results set off alarms at City Hall.
“The people I talked to weren’t very happy that Parks and Rec had done the Alamitos Peninsula study,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “Not considering the powerful people involved and the political sensitivity.
“But a letter was drafted to homeowners informing them that they had a year to remove their things from the public beach. When the letter got to Frank Colonna, he became apoplectic, and the result was that it was simply killed. It didn’t go out to anybody. The matter was dropped.”
Colonna sticks to his story.
“I never saw the Alamitos Peninsula study,” he said.
He declined an offer to see the study now.
“I don’t need to,” he said. “I know the area well.”
And that city worker’s account of a letter that was drafted to homeowners?
“There wasn’t one that I know of,” Colonna said. “But that wouldn’t have been my area. The city council is a public-policy office. We don’t do enforcement.”
The Alamitos Bay Beach Preservation Group (ABBPG) was incorporated in 1960 to oppose a plan by the city to replace the bayside beach with a sea wall. It has fought to save the wooden boardwalk from attempts to replace it with pavement. It supports the 18 floating “Trees on the Bay,” a holiday-season tradition from late November through Christmas.
But the No. 1 item on the group’s strategic plan is: “Monitor and oppose attempts to remove and/or reconfigure the federal breakwater.” From its perspective, the Alamitos Peninsula’s small district of expensive homes and exclusive way of life are worth the sacrifice of the rest of the city’s right to a shore with cleaner water and natural surf.
While the ABBPG thinks nothing of the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent every year to haul in thousands of truckloads of sand to replenish and fortify the Alamitos Peninsula Beach, it bemoans using $100,000 to study the Breakwater.
“If you have $100,000 of Tidelands burning a hole in your pocket,” the group’s president, Jeanne Muench, told the city council, “let us suggest several priorities: research water-quality problems and causes; add a marine patrol officer to monitor gang activity, graffiti, drag racing, trash, and litter at the end of the Peninsula; install security cameras like they have in Newport Beach; hire patrols to clean the beach by hand; fix our sidewalks; underground our utilities . . . ”
At this point, Mayor Bob Foster cut her off.
After you’ve gotten used to stepping onto the beach when you step out your front door, it’s probably hard to remember that it’s not your front yard, especially when city officials don’t seem inclined to remind you. No doubt it’s a little bothersome—and, occasionally, perhaps somewhat frightening—to have people walking, swimming, shouting, and generally lingering around your home. But the Alamitos Peninsula shares those issues with many other places along California’s coastline.
“When we’re dealing with a borderline between public and private space, there is often some tension,” says Willis of the Coastal Commission. “People coexist with it well in some areas and not so well in others. It may be understandable. People feel they are losing part of their back yard. But the impact of that cumulative creep onto public sandy beach is very problematic. It concerns us.”
Willis cited Newport Beach as an example of an affluent area with a well-traveled public boardwalk where the public and private seem to mix well—where the city and the Coastal Commission have negotiated an encroachment zone in which certain pre-approved developments can be mitigated by providing coastal access in other places. Nonetheless, said Willis, the Coastal Commission must remain vigilant against even more creeping invasion of public space.
“Even in Newport Beach, where the have an encroachment zone, people encroach even further,” said Willis. “But the Commission was firm. Everything that was illegally built has been removed.”