A California appeals court has ruled Palos Verdes Estates may be liable under the state’s Coastal Act if city officials turned a blind eye to the Lunada Bay Boys’ decades-long harassment of out-of-town surfers attempting to enjoy the area’s coveted waves.
The ruling drags Palos Verdes Estates back into a lawsuit filed in 2016 by two surfers who experienced the group’s wrath firsthand and felt the city wasn’t doing enough to stop it. A trial court judge in that case had previously dismissed the city from the suit, which also named 15 Bay Boys individually, in 2020 after deciding the Coastal Act wasn’t applicable.
Now, not only is the city potentially back on the hook, but attorneys for the plaintiffs and the California Coastal Commission say the appellate court’s broader interpretation of the Coastal Act sets a “monumental” precedent that could force cities to confront the aggressive and territorial behavior of local surfers, referred to as surf localism, or face fines of up to $15,000 per day.
Kate Huckelbridge, the California Coastal Commission’s executive director, called the Second District Court of Appeal ruling a “victory for the Coastal Act and for anyone who believes the best of California should be accessible to all.”
“It’s historic that a court has affirmed that bullies harassing visitors to Lunada Bay is as much a violation of the Coastal Act as an unpermitted rock fort, and we hope the city will work to ensure that part of the coast is truly open to the public,” Huckelbridge said. “We look forward to working with them to improve trails, add benches, public access signage and viewing binoculars — all to make sure the public feels more welcome.”
Kurt Franklin, one of the attorneys representing surfers Cory Spencer and Diana Reed, said other beach cities should take note.
“It is important to put cities on notice that they can’t sit on their hands with this; they need to take action, or they face Coastal Act risks, which ultimately includes penalties,” Franklin said.
“The reason there’s a lot of space is because we keep it like that, we (expletive) hassle people,” said one surfer to the pair. “We’ll burn you every wave.”
A police officer later described the group as being “infamous” in the community and appeared dismissive.
“It literally is like a game with kids on a schoolyard to them. And they don’t want you playing on their swing set,” said the unidentified officer. “But you know, it is what it is. If you feel uncomfortable, you know, then don’t do it.”
Former Police Chief Timm Browne once acknowledged in a video on surfer localism that the community as a whole does not embrace outsiders.
“I mean, they pay a price to live here … they have beautiful views of the ocean from most of the homes in the city,” he said. “So they are protective of their community as a whole — I mean, surfers or nonsurfers.”
Those who surf Lunada Bay, he said, “have a sense of ownership” about their gem of a surfing spot.
‘Privatized a beach’
The original lawsuit alleges Palos Verdes Estates failed to stop the Bay Boys’ intimidation and violence against outsiders for years and tacitly allowed the group to build an unpermitted rock fort into the cliffside of the publicly owned Lunada Bay.
“They de facto privatized a beach in deed, in actions, and physically, they built a doggone headquarters down there,” Franklin said.
Spencer, one of the plaintiffs, allegedly had his hand sliced open when a Bay Boy ran him over with a surfboard, while Reed was allegedly sexually harassed by a member of the group who exposed himself.
“Because it’s surfing, people don’t seem to take it as seriously,” Franklin said. “If this was a hiking trail and people were throwing rocks at you, it would be stopped. The police would do something about it.”
The lawsuit accuses the city of even assisting in the efforts to drive away nonlocals by ignoring complaints and targeting visitors with parking tickets and towed vehicles.
City disappointed in ruling
The city has denied the allegations and argues it never violated the Coastal Act. It demolished the rock fort — which was more of a stone patio — in 2016 amid a media frenzy about the Bay Boys.
“We’re naturally disappointed in the court’s decision,” Richards said. “What this means is the case will likely return to the trial department and proceed with the litigation. We remain confident that we’ll prevail at the next stage.”
Richards said he does not believe the appellate decision will set a precedent because it deals with limited circumstances.
The California Coastal Act, enacted in 1976 to protect the state’s coastline, bars unpermitted developments that interfere with the public’s right of access to the state’s beaches.
Unlike the common usage, however, the act defines a “development” to include “a change in intensity of use of water, or access thereto” and should be “broadly construed to encompass all impediments to access, whether direct or indirect, physical or nonphysical,” according to the Feb. 27 appellate ruling written by Presiding Justice Laurence Rubin.
The rock fort and the alleged harassment carried out by the Bay Boys could each be considered violations under the Coastal Act because they created barriers for the public, the panel ruled. The city, alleged to be a conspirator by the plaintiffs, could be liable as the effective landowner.
“We conclude a change in the access to water brought about by an organized scheme of harassment of, or similar impediment imposed on, those seeking access may be just as much a change in access to water as one brought about by a physical impediment,” Rubin wrote.
Rubin likened the city’s alleged complicity to the Bay Boys’ blockade to another highly publicized case in which a property owner in Half Moon Bay attempted to restrict access to a road leading to Martins Beach by locking a gate and stationing security guards at the entrance.
“If closing a gate and posting a security guard constitutes development in Martins Beach, so may setting up headquarters at the Rock Fort, physically obstructing trail access to the beach, and intimidating outsiders with word and deed,” Rubin wrote.
No ruling on merits
Though it reversed the trial court’s dismissal, the appellate court did not rule on the merits of the case. The panel determined the lower court erred in its “narrow” interpretation of the Coastal Act and that the plaintiffs had “sufficiently alleged an actionable conspiracy in which the City has participated” to allow the case against the city to proceed again.
Thus far, 12 of the alleged Bay Boys named in the case have settled, with some agreeing to stay away from Lunada Bay for up to a year, while seven opted to pay $25,000 to $90,000 instead.
The case will return to the Superior Court to resolve the outstanding allegations against the remaining two individuals and the city.