On paper, investigators with the California Coastal Commission appeared to have the goods on Gladstone's-For-Fish, the popular eatery at Will Rogers State Beach.
A commission staff report last month cited the restaurant for seven violations of the state Coastal Act. Among them, it said, Gladstone's had illegally expanded its dining area, claimed public beach parking as its own and built an unauthorized storage facility on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
But last week, the state panel, meeting in Huntington Beach, overlooked some violations and gave Gladstone's a slap on the wrist for others.
The most severe punishment originally recommended by the commission's staff was that the restaurant be prohibited from opening until after 5 p.m. on summer weekends and holidays, so that the parking spaces used by Gladstone's customers could be freed for use by beach-goers.
After a concerted lobbying effort by the restaurant and its allies in county government, however, the staff dropped its call for weekend closings shortly before the commission was scheduled to vote on the matter and instead recommended several far milder measures--such as ordering changes in the restaurant's signs to make clear that the property is open to the beach-going public, and requiring the restaurant to allow beach-goers to use its restrooms.
The vote to adopt the staff recommendations was 5 to 1. The lone dissenter, Commissioner Madelyn Glickfeld of Malibu, called the last-minute change by the staff in its recommendations for resolving the alleged violations "astonishing."
The small number of commissioners who participated--barely enough for a quorum--made the vote itself unusual. Because of two vacancies and the absence of Chairman Thomas W. Gwyn, the panel, normally composed of 12 commissioners, considered the matter last Wednesday with only nine members--three of whom chose to leave the room right before the vote and returned soon afterward.
Meanwhile, opponents of the restaurant, including those who accused it of bullying beach-goers from using public beachfront, expressed outrage at what they called Gladstone's favorable treatment.
"It's obvious the vote was fixed," said critic Karen Jackson of Pacific Palisades. Neighbors have long complained that Gladstone's--at Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset Boulevard--is a noise and traffic nuisance and that it interferes with public access to the beach.
Whatever its detractors may say about it, however, Gladstone's is no ordinary restaurant.
With more than 1.3 million customers annually, it claims to be the largest restaurant in the West. It is also distinguished in another way. Because it leases state beach property that is administered by Los Angeles County, Gladstone's last year put $1.2 million into the coffers of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, in addition to generating $1 million in sales taxes.
Critics of the restaurant accused the Coastal Commission of bending to pressure from county officials in overlooking the alleged violations.
"If anything, they should have their operating license revoked," said Jack Allen, president of the 1,100-member Pacific Palisades Residents Assn. "Instead, what the commission did was reward years of wrongdoing."
Among the commissioners who voted to approve the action was Mark Nathanson, who is also County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's appointee to the Small Craft Harbor Commission, which oversees the Department of Beaches and Harbors. Paul Flowers, who lobbied the coastal panel on behalf of the restaurant, has close ties to County Supervisor Deane Dana.
Testifying on behalf of the restaurant's owners were Roger Osenbaugh, a former coastal commissioner hired by Gladstone's as a consultant, and Chris Klinger, deputy director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors.
Klinger urged the commissioners to do nothing to harm the restaurant's business, saying that the money the county collects from the lease represents nearly half of the county's budget for beach maintenance.
"Obviously, the success of Gladstone's is very important to us," he said.
But Gladstone's critics found little comfort in that argument.
"So it's a big moneymaker for the county, but I thought the Coastal Commission's job was to uphold the Coastal Act," said Barbara Kohn, another Pacific Palisades resident. "What they've done--or should I say didn't do--is outrageous."
The staff report detailed violations that it said had occurred for years at the restaurant.
They included the addition of several hundred seats to its dining facilities without Coastal Commission approval; the use of portable kitchens to accommodate outdoor dining, and the erection of signs that not only violated the restaurant's coastal permit, but also, staff members said, misled the public to believe that the property was private.
The staff report said that the county knew, or should have known, that the restaurant was not in compliance with state law.