Judge clears way to reopen La Jolla beach access at Princess Street

By Pat Sherman

A once-popular beach access point at the foot of Princess Street that has been blocked for decades by private development could soon be restored and open to the public — a victory for La Jolla beach access advocates, and a headache for the property owners and their neighbors, who only wish to allow emergency access to lifeguards.

On Nov. 18, a San Diego County Superior Court judge ruled that the California Coastal Commission (CCC) may enforce a condition of the development permit it issued for the home in 1979, which requires that the property owner record an easement to restore public access to the beach.

A path on the property, which had been accessible to the public since 1932, was closed off in 1978 when then property owner Jane Baker built her home on top of it while the original development permit was being challenged in court.

The original permit did not include a stipulation requiring that public access be maintained. While the legal challenge to it was pending, Baker completed her home.

Baker never signed the revised permit requiring public access, nor reopened the path, though she “nonetheless

accepted its terms by completing the construction of her home,” the court ruled this month.

A handful of subsequent property owners, including current owners, Ure and Diane Kretowicz, who purchased the home at foreclosure in 1994, also did not comply with the public access condition.

The Kretowiczes have been involved in litigation with the CCC over the easement condition since 1999. Settlement negotiations between the Kretowiczes and the CCC have broken down through the years. These include the Kretowiczes’ offer to provide alternate public access by paying more than $3 million to rebuild a stairway on bluffs near Coast Walk that burned down in the early 1960s.

“There were a variety of proposals … to either provide alternative access or to delay opening of the accessway across the Kretowicz property,” CCC Supervising Staff Counsel Chris Pederson said. “Either the commission thought the proposal for alternative access wasn’t equivalent or Kretowicz balked at providing alternative access that the commission thought was sufficient.

“In the last proposal, there had been an offer regarding a potentially significant delay in the opening of the access and the commission decided that that wasn’t appropriate — especially given the long delays associated with opening the access from the past several decades.”

The Nov. 18 court ruling dismissed the Kretowiczes’ argument that the statute of limitations had run out to enforce the easement condition, stating that, “The passage of time will not legalize ongoing and continuing violations of permit conditions.”

The Kretowiczes also argued that the CCC can not enforce the public access condition because it has not, until recently, attempted to enforce it. However, the court found that “the mere failure to enforce the law … will not (prohibit) the government from subsequently enforcing it.”

Pederson said he is not sure why it took the CCC several decades to pursue enforcement of the beach access condition.

“This was now more than 30 years ago,” he said. “There are just gaps in the documentation about what happened during that time period. In the late ’90s it came back to our attention in the context of a proposal for some new development on the Kretowicz property.”

The permit issued by the CCC in 1979 states that the public access requirement “runs with the land,” meaning that “all future owners and possessors of the property are bound to these terms and conditions” and that “third party transactions (sales) do not immunize defective land use approvals,” the court also found.

La Jolla Parks and Beaches committee member Melinda Merryweather, who has long sought to reopen Princess Street access to the public, heralded the recent ruling. Others who also favor opening public access there include La Jolla architect Anthony Ciani (who recently fought the CCC to assure beach access would be maintained in front on Mitt and Ann Romney’s La Jolla property when their beachfront home is rebuilt) and Billy Booth, the son of Jane Baker (whose home initially blocked the public access).

“I am so proud of the Coastal Commission for fighting for what they stand for,” said Merryweather, noting that the Princess Street access point is part of the La Jolla Community Plan. “We now have our access back, which will need a lot of work, as it has not been maintained for all these years, but it can and will be done.”

Before public access can be reinstated, the path leading down to the beach must be restored to a safe condition.

Lee McEachern, a district regulatory supervisor for the CCC’s San Diego district office, said CCC’s staff engineer and geologist have reviewed preliminary plans for a stairway that would lead from the left of the Kretowicz property to the shoreline below.

“They agree it’s feasible and could be done, once the easement is recorded and accepted by whatever entity (agrees to maintain it),” McEachern said.

A locked gate on the Kretowicz property currently blocks access to the beach. Ure Kretowicz said he believes reopening full access puts the public at risk.

“It’s a dangerous adventure to get from Princess Street down to that water,” he said. “We’ve always been willing to give an easement for emergency lifeguard service. … We would either give them a code or an override button that would just unlock the gate and allow them to head right on down the side of the house.”

Neighbor Dave Reynolds, who resides in the adjacent, 1907 Wheeler J. Bailey house (designed by Irving Gill), said he also does not want public access reinstated.

“We’ve been against it forever,” Reynolds said. “It’s just not safe; it’s a liability issue. … There’s very easy access from the Marine Room. Plus, it would be an invasion of the neighborhood.”

However, WindanSea Surf Club president Ozstar De Jourday said the beach access north of Princess Street, near the Marine Room restaurant on Spindrift Drive, is not always a safe route. He said the Princess Street access is the safest way up during high tide or rough water conditions, and a necessary point of access for divers, surfers and others walking the coast. De Jourday recalled once being stuck on the rocks below with a group of young surfers, having to cajole Ure Kretowicz into allowing them to come up through his property.

“When the waves are big that’s super dangerous (trying to get up from the beach near the Marine Room),” he said.

Ure Kretowicz said he is not yet sure whether he will appeal the Nov. 18 court ruling.

“We’re sitting here with counsel looking at all of our options — one of which is to appeal,” he said.

Sign of the times

Merryweather provided

La Jolla Light

with photos of a sign that once stood near the railing where Princess Street and Spindrift Drive connect, which she said denoted Princess Street as a beach access point. She said that at some point the words “At Marine Room” were added, with an arrow pointing north on Spindrift Drive. Several years ago, the sign was inexplicably removed.

Shown a photograph of the sign, Dan Daneri, district manager of shoreline parks for the city’s Park and Recreation department, said it was most likely a city sign. However, he said the city did not modify it, nor remove it.

Kretowicz also denied any implication that he removed the sign.

Should the Kretowiczes appeal the ruling, Pederson said, the CCC would “certainly continue to vigorously defend the commission’s action and argue in favor of the trial court ruling.”

Once a legal path is clear for the CCC to move forward with enforcement, McEachern said, “there’s some pretty specific time frames (in which) they need to get the easements recorded.”