Coastal Commission tests “members only” signs on the sand at Hotel Laguna

Visitors enjoying Main Beach and surf as seen from Laguna Beach Club on June 22, 2022. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Signs placed on the sand along Hotel Laguna’s northern property line to discourage beachgoers from intermingling with guests of a July 30 event have attracted scrutiny from state officials.

Photos posted to a local Facebook group show a row of PVC pipe frames inserted into the sand displaying canvas signs emblazoned with “Laguna Beach Club” and “private members only” facing the public stairway.

“The Coastal Commission’s Enforcement Unit is aware of this and investigating,” agency spokesperson Noaki Schwartz wrote in an email Wednesday.

City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said she spoke with Laguna Beach Co. CEO Mohammad Honarkar after receiving photos of the signs.

“Those signs were placed on Saturday but they were removed and he understands those signs cannot be placed back on the sand,” Dupuis said. “I placed them there to reserve the area for his guests.”

Hasty Honarkar, vice president of the Laguna Beach Co., referred questions to the company’s attorney who was not immediately available on Thursday.

The Laguna Beach Club allows private members and hotel guests to reserve a chair and umbrella on the sand to enjoy food and beverages. This use predates the California Coastal Act of 1976 and allows serving alcohol between the hotels above the median high-tide line.

The State Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control requires the liquor license owner to post signs at all stairs and ramps leading from the hotel boardwalk to the beachfront area. The signs cannot measure less than seven by eleven inches and must notify patrons that open alcoholic beverages cannot leave the beachfront area.

In June, Hotel Laguna hosted a soft reopening of the renovated Coral Room, a historic banquet hall in the hotel’s basement that has been transformed into a members-only club overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Main Beach.

The newly renovated Coral Room in the basement of Hotel Laguna as seen on June 21, 2022. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Councilmember Toni Isemen drilled down on the Beach Club’s history with community development director Marc Wiener during the Aug. 2 city council meeting.

“To my knowledge, they don’t have a permit for it. I think their claim is that it’s been a historic use at that location and is a vested right,” Wiener said.

The Coastal Commission’s scrutiny of the grandfathered beach club extends back to when it was under the management of the Anderson family, Wiener said, adding he plans to meet with the coastal staff within the next week to better understand their position of the Beach Club’s “vested rights”.

“The question is whether the use is grandfathered with the site and they’re entitled to continue operating it regardless of whether it conforms to the city zoning code,” Wiener said.

This isn’t the first time Honarkar has run into headwinds with the state panel.

The oceanfront terrace off the renovated Coral Room at Hotel Laguna on June 21, 2022. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

In May 2021, the Coastal Commission voted to find substantial issues with how Laguna Beach approved Hotel Laguna’s remodel, indefinitely delaying the historic landmark’s reopening. The Laguna Beach Co. changed course and decided to open the hotel’s first floor last October.

Hotel Laguna LLC was granted a building permit in April to remodel two hotel guest rooms as model rooms for the hotel, public records show.

Laguna Beach has a deep history of not only protecting access to the sand but welcoming visitors of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, said Mike Beanan, co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition.

“When you start putting up barriers on the sand you’re by definition excluding people from access. We don’t want to perpetuate the elitism that other countries practice by denying access to the beach,” Beanan said.

The Laguna Beach Marine Protected Area extends to where clumps of kelp and marine grasses land onshore, providing habitat for insects that shorebirds like to eat, Beanan said.

“I think if Hotel Laguna wants to be part of the community they need to work with the community,” Beanan said.

Stephen Bramucci, a 20-year Laguna Beach resident and founding editor of Uproxx Life, helped spur the online conversation about the beach club signs crowding the welcoming beach vibe that many residents guard ferociously. He’s pleased to hear that state officials are probing the matter.

“What every surfer that I know loves about the ocean, what every beach-obsessed person I know loves about the beach is that it is a wild space where there is no stratification among the people who enjoy it, meaning there’s there’s no separation between the billionaire on the beach in California and the person who’s nearly destitute,” Bramucci said.

Bramucci’s critics argue that blasting the signs, which have been removed, needlessly makes a big deal out of a minor mishap.

“Maybe it’s a small issue but we also have to create a culture of accountability, where we’re able to highlight things and call them out—without being accused of making personal attacks— so that we can build a better town,” he said .

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