Calif. resort to pay $1.6 million penalty over public beach access

One of Northern California’s most exclusive hotels, the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, where rooms rent for $1,000 a night and Silicon Valley companies regularly hold posh retreats, agreed Thursday to pay $1.6 million in penalties to the California Coastal Commission to settle years of violations of state coastal laws.

The penalties, the second-largest of their kind in the commission’s history, were approved at a monthly commission meeting in San Diego.

The 261-room luxury oceanfront hotel, golf course and spa was built in 2001 after years of battles with environmentalists and local residents in San Mateo County who said it would block public access to two sandy beaches.

To address those concerns, when the Coastal Commission first issued the project a permit in the 1990s, the agency required the Ritz to build a free public parking lot with 15 spaces overlooking Cañada Verde Beach, a scenic beach just south of the hotel. The commission also gave the hotel the option of building a second public beach parking lot a mile north at Redondo Beach or allowing the public to park for free in the hotel’s parking garage. The hotel owners chose to set aside 25 public spaces in its garage for beachgoers.

But over the years, hotel valets parked the cars of hotel guests and golfers in the public spots or told members of the public they couldn’t park there, despite multiple warnings and fines from the commission. The hotel also failed to put up signs telling the public the beaches are open and free to anyone, not just hotel guests or golfers.

After being hit with a $50,000 penalty by the commission in 2004, the hotel promised changes but did not deliver. It was issued violations and paid additional penalties again in 2007 and 2011.

On Thursday, commissioners were clearly angry.

“When I see these legacy violations, there’s outrage and exhaustion,” said Commissioner Donnie Brownsey. “You think about the families and local folks and visitors who have not been able to go to those beaches for almost a generation.”

Others noted that when families have tried to go to the beaches by driving down Miramontes Point Road, they face an intimidating array of hotel staff members, wealthy golfers, fences, guard stations and gates.

Mandy Sackett, state policy director for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, said it seemed like no accident that the hotel has for years not made it clear to the public that anyone can use the beaches and park there, even though the hotel owners agreed to those conditions to obtain the permits to build the hotel.

“Perhaps creating the illusion of a private beach helps justify the exorbitant cost of the rooms,” she said.

Rather than face years in court, the hotel owners negotiated a settlement agreement with the Coastal Commission staff in which they agreed to pay $1.6 million, $600,000 of which will go to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, a Palo Alto land conservation group, to help purchase an adjacent 27-acre property north of the hotel with additional public beach access. The other $1 million will go into a Coastal Commission fund that provides signs, trails, staircases and other amenities to help the public use beaches around the state.

The company also agreed to expand the beach lot to 22 spaces, put up signs clearly stating that the beaches are public, better train its staff, conduct media outreach, post beach information on its website and conduct a study to reduce plastic pollution at the hotel.

“We want to be a good partner in this. We have spent a year or year-and-a-half working through this. We have given quite a lot,” said Dave Hogin, chief operating officer of Strategic Hotels and Resorts, the Chicago-based company that bought the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay for $124 million in 2004.

The settlement also set the penalty for any future violations at $25,000 per violation per day.

“Past behavior is a predictor of future behavior,” said Commissioner Aaron Peskin. “Not always, but often. I don’t want this to be another Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football situation.”

The settlement is the latest major case the commission has pursued to preserve public access to California’s beaches.

Under a law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, the commission can fine people or corporations who build without permits along the coast or who block public access to beaches up to $11,250 per day — or $4.1 million per year — for up to five years.

Last month, the commission hit a Southern California developer, Sunshine Enterprises, with $15.5 million in fines after it obtained permits to replace two of the only low-cost hotels near Santa Monica Pier with a single affordable hotel that would charge $165 a night for a room, but then built a hotel with rooms up to $800 instead, without the permits to do so.