There appears to be a battle shaping up between the California Coastal Commission and the city of Los Angeles over the city’s enforcement of a curfew on its beaches.

The dispute largely centers on whether the city’s law, which prohibits people from being on beaches between midnight and 5 a.m., constitutes “development” as defined by the California Coastal Act.

Attorneys for the Coastal Commission, which focuses on development issues along the state’s coastline, say that the Coastal Act identifies development as anything that impacts public access to the coast. The definition can be applied to the more general description such as a building or other structure, or to laws that result in changes to the use of land and access to the coast, such as a curfew, commission attorneys say.

“The law is clear that anything that changes the public’s general access to the coast constitutes development,” said Alex Helperin, senior staff counsel for the Coastal Commission.

Under the Coastal Act, anything defined as development must receive a coastal development permit in order to be considered valid. In a Feb. 3 letter to the city attorney’s office, Helperin said that according to a recent review, the city’s beach curfew ordinance has received no such authorization, making the law “of no legal force or effect.”

A primary basis for the curfew law, which was enacted in 1988, relates to public safety issues and prevention of incidents of late-night crime. City attorneys note that the law has allowed for the exercise of police powers reserved to local governments by the Coastal Act. They firmly disagree that the curfew is termed as development and therefore don’t believe that a coastal development permit is necessary.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich specified what his office believes to be development in an October letter to the commission.

“A duly-adopted municipal ordinance or law regardless of its subject matter is not a ‘development’ as that word is used in the Coastal Act,” Trutanich wrote. “A ‘development’ in the Coastal Act always refers to physical structures and things: buildings, walls, fences, etc.”

Responding to commission counsel’s most recent findings that the curfew law is “of no effect,” Deputy City Attorney Gerald Sato sent a Feb. 9 letter reiterating the city’s position rejecting the development terminology and affirming its intention to not seek a permit.

“The Legislature did not intend to require municipalities to obtain development permits for regulating the hours of access to beaches,” Sato wrote.

He told The Argonaut, “The letter expresses our disagreement with the view that the city’s law is already void, and repeats our view that no coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission is required for the city’s law to be valid.”

Pointing to the timing of the commission’s initial investigation of the curfew standing, city attorneys suggested that the state board only began to look at the curfew law during a conflict over the approval of overnight parking districts in Venice. Following the commission’s denial of permits to establish overnight parking restrictions on Venice streets, the city of Los Angeles joined a lawsuit challenging the commission’s jurisdiction to approve such permits.

Trutanich, in his letter last year, strongly criticized the commission’s investigation of a law that has existed for nearly three decades, saying it is happening only in response to the city’s legal challenge.

“The ongoing investigation is totally unjustified, without any legal merit, and represents retaliation against the city of Los Angeles for exercising its constitutional right to seek redress in the court against the commission’s abuses of discretion,” the city attorney accused. “We therefore demand that the investigation be terminated forthwith.”

Regarding the claim of commission retaliation for the challenge to its Venice OPD vote, Helperin called it “wholly unfounded, and frankly, absurd.”

“We don’t have the resources or interest to go picking on cities,” the commission attorney said. “It’s never been our policy to retaliate.”

Helperin acknowledged that commission counsel did begin to examine the curfew law after being made aware of it during the hearings for overnight parking districts. He said that once attorneys learned of the ordinance they studied it as an issue of public access, but not because of the city’s legal action.

While the commission lacks the resources to conduct a complete survey of the curfew status for each coastal city, the agency will respond to any permit issues when they are made aware of them, Helperin said. The commission is not against beach curfews and has approved permits for such laws for other cities in the past, he noted.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the coastal 11th District, spoke of prior disagreements with the Coastal Commission in getting approvals for parking districts in Venice and Playa del Rey to address resident concerns.

“I’ve attempted to work with the Coastal Commission to have parking opportunities and been denied, most recently in Playa del Rey. I don’t know if the Coastal Commission appreciates Los Angeles or not,” the councilman said.

Rosendahl explained that attorneys for the city and coastal board are in discussions on the curfew issue and he hopes that they will be able to come to a resolution over the situation or that the city can decide how to proceed. He said the city’s curfew law is primarily about safety and was put in place for a reason.

“The reality is that we can’t have officers patrolling the beach all night long; we don’t have that luxury,” he said.

Helperin said the commission understands the city’s desire to ensure public safety and is interested in working on a solution that achieves that goal while preserving public coastal access, but the city “refuses to recognize our jurisdiction.”

“We recognize that the city has a role in this and they need to recognize that we have a role in this. We need to work together,” Helperin said.

Sato said the city would give serious consideration to a commission proposal to change the curfew law but the agency needs to present such a plan in order to move forward.

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