By Gary Walker

Left: BEFORE: Wildflowers grow on a natural dune                                Right: AFTER: Flat, bare sand in place of the dune

Playa del Rey residents are outraged and the California Coastal Commission is demanding corrective action after a controversial developer bulldozed ecologically sensitive sand dunes on Toes Beach over the weekend, despite a city council field deputy’s orders to stop work. Earthmoving equipment leveled beach dunes near Culver Boulevard and Pacific Avenue on Friday afternoon and again on Saturday morning — destroying native plant species and animal habitat in the process, according to environmental activists.

Property owner The Legado Co. has long had an antagonistic relationship with local residents who fought hard against its plans for a 72-unit residential and retail complex in the commercial heart of Playa del Rey. The company is suing the city over city council members’ refusal to approve the development last year.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin said the city Department of Building and Safety had ordered Legado to remove a rusty and dilapidated fence surrounding the property, but did not issue a permit to grade the land.

“I was shocked and angry on behalf of neighbors and on behalf of the environment. They’ve done some serious damage to the dunes. The dunes have been flattened,” Bonin said.

Benjamin Reznik, a local land use attorney representing Legado, said the machinery operators needed to excavate a significant portion of the fence post that was buried underneath the sand.

“The excavation left a hole, and the other operator’s job was to fill the hole,” Reznik said. “The Department of Building and Safety knew what we were doing and [the Los Angeles County Department of] Beaches and Harbors had someone present during the work.”

UPDATE: “The Department of Beaches and Harbors had no prior knowledge that the dunes on private property would be bulldozed, nor does the Department condone that activity. Our staff member went to the scene shortly after becoming aware of the activity because it was taking place on land adjacent to beach that we care for — and that was concerning enough,” reads a statement issued by Beaches and Harbors.  

California Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz told The Argonaut that the regulatory body will demand that Legado take restorative action.

“We have been investigating it and [on Tuesday] we sent out a notice of intent to issue an executive director cease-and-desist order, seeking immediate interim actions to address the site. This will be followed by a commission order to require site restoration and other actions,” Schwartz stated via email.

Ruth Lansford, who lives near the dune area, said her son alerted her to the machinery on Friday afternoon, prompting her to call Bonin’s office. Bonin said he sent a field deputy on Friday to order Legado to stop work, and that deputy returned on Saturday morning after work resumed.

“That took a lot of nerve, quite frankly,” said Lansford, who helped found Friends of the Ballona Wetlands. “It shows
that they have total contempt for the community.”

Reznik believes community animosity toward development is fueling acrimony about the dunes.

“I think there is a segment of the community there that wants to paint Legado in a bad light because of a project that would have had affordable housing,” Reznik said.

“This is a property owner who has a really horrible relationship with the community and has insulted them for years,” countered Bonin. “This is really beyond the pale. I want to see restoration and mitigation as well as significant penalties.”