Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay faces $1.6 million penalty for failing to provide public beach access
Coastal Commission says luxury hotel violated coastal laws for years
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, is facing $1.6 million in penalties imposed by the California Coastal Commission to settle years of violations of state coastal laws.
The penalties, which would be the second-largest of their kind in Coastal Commission history, were being debated Thursday at a monthly commission meeting held 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 hotel 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 chose to set aside 25 public spaces in its garage for beach goers.
But over the years, hotel valets have 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 working class 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, despite the hotel owners having 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 to provide more public beach access. The other $1 million will go into a Coastal Commission fund that provides signs, trails, stair cases and other amenities to help the public to use beaches around the state.
The company also agreed to expand the beach lot to 22 spaces, put up signs clearly stating the beaches are public, better train its staff, and post the information on its website.
“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 owns the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.
A final vote to approve the deal, however, was delayed Thursday morning when the commissioners attempted to strengthen it, by requiring that the hotel face $25,000 per day per violation in the future, rather than $5,000, as the staff and hotel had agreed upon.
“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.”
But company representatives said they needed more time to consider the proposed change. The final vote was delayed until the end of the meeting and had not occurred by 3 p.m. Thursday.
The settlement is the latest major penalty 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 an affordable hotel with rooms at $165 a night, then built a hotel with rooms up to $800 instead without permits.
And last year, the commission unanimously approved a $1.45 million penalty against the Orange County owners of an apartment complex in Pacifica who the commission said blocked public access to Pacific Manor Beach for more than a year.
The owners of Oceanaire Apartments on Esplanade Avenue allowed a beach trail to collapse that they were required to maintain under earlier permits with the commission. They failed to repair it, a seawall and a stairway down a 75-foot bluff that were damaged in a December 2016 storm, the commission staff showed, then covered the beach with boulders and graded the sand illegally without a permit. As part of the settlement, the owners of the properties, managed by Trinity Property Consultants and Redwood Construction of Irvine, were required to open an interim trail to the beach, remove the boulders and submit plans to the commission for a more permanent solution.
Finally, in September 2017, the commission also began an enforcement action against Silicon Valley tech billionaire Vinod Khosla. The commission sent Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, a letter charging that he committed “numerous and significant violations of the California Coastal Act” back to 2009, a year after he purchased Martins Beach, a beachfront property south of Half Moon Bay, and locked the gate to a beach that had been enjoyed by families since the 1920s.
Khosla lost multiple court fights, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear his case. He has since opened the gate, but the enforcement action remains open.