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The Case of the Disappearing Dune

The guilty party -- or Newport Beach -- must pay to restore a mound that was flattened late at night. Homes' sea views are much improved.

June 29, 2005|Lomi Kriel | Times Staff Writer

Dennis Rodman's former stamping grounds in west Newport Beach are known as a neighborhood where residents -- who routinely complained to police about Rodman's rowdy parties -- relish peace and quiet.

But remarkably, few residents have said they heard anything when a 4-foot-high, 50-yard-long sand dune was flattened right in front of their ground-level decks late one April night, leaving some of the multimillion-dollar homes with an unimpeded ocean view.

The dunes have been a point of contention in the 7300 block of West Oceanfront, near the Santa Ana River mouth. Last year, a homeowner hired a crew to remove part of the dune, but was stopped by the city. Residents are staying mum about the dune's demise, but most seem delighted it's gone.

And unless the Orange County district attorney's office and Newport Beach police can find who bulldozed it, the city may have to dump thousands of dollars into replacing it.

The California Coastal Commission, which oversees development of the state's 1,100-mile coastline, has given the city until Aug. 18 to solve the mystery and find someone to pick up the tab, which Assistant City Manager David Kiff estimates "could certainly be in the five figures, maybe in the six figures."

Sand dunes, a vanishing landform in Southern California, are protected by state law. Restoration would include using biologists' reports to try to re-create the dune's earlier configuration and monitoring plant growth.

Coastal Commission officials suspect one or several residents were involved, but residents will say only that they are happy it's gone. The ice plant-dotted dune had gradually increased in size over the last decade, leaving some ground-floor residents without the ocean view they felt came with their address.

"We're pleased that it's gone," said Bob Ray, 80, whose blue-walled home with its second-story deck is adjacent to the spot of missing sand. "It's a much better view."

The average sprawling home on West Oceanfront easily sells for $3 million, and as prices have steadily increased over the last several years, so have the dunes, much to many residents' chagrin.

But there was nothing residents could legally do about it. California's 1976 Coastal Act requires a permit for any coastal development and limits alteration of natural landforms.

So someone took matters into his or her own hands, a move that has angered environmentalists.

"You can't just go down and bulldoze," said Mark Rauscher, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation, a San Clemente-based environmental group.

Rauscher pointed to recent events in Malibu in which property owners used heavy equipment to scoop up tons of public beach sand and pile it on their private beach. It is the latest twist in a long-standing dispute over beach access between Broad Beach residents and beachgoers.

"These sort of vigilante tactics show a lack of respect for the people of California and the resources that we're entitled to protect," he said.

"Just because they have money, they think they can do whatever they want to suit their needs."

Nancy Gardner, who heads the foundation's Newport Beach chapter, said, "It's the public's beach. It's not your beach."

But as a real estate agent, Newport Beach Councilman Steven Rosansky is more sympathetic to the plight of residents who've traded their ocean view for a sand dune.

"People who had an ocean view at one time and saw the waves crash on the beach feel like they're being cheated now because it's no longer there," he said.

A view can often make a big difference in a property's value.

Standing on his second-floor deck, Ray pointed to the strip of houses to his right, four of which have ground-floor decks and face the area that once was a dune.

Residents there either refused to comment on the dune's demise or weren't home.

"People have been wanting to do away with the dunes for a while," Ray said.

Replacing the sand mound is a waste of money, he said. "You can hardly see that it's gone. I don't see that any damage has been done."

But others say there's a good reason for all the fuss.

Many dunes, no matter how small, support rare ecosystems, and these dunes were close to one of the few successful breeding colonies of the California least tern, an endangered species, Coastal Commission officials say.

The dune's disappearance may be linked to heavy machinery, owned by CJW Construction Inc., stored at a nearby site for a Santa Ana River dredging project. A site supervisor reported to police that a front-loader and excavator had been taken from the site and later replaced.

In a May 10 letter to the city, Andrew Willis, a district enforcement analyst for the Coastal Commission, said it appeared that nearby homeowners "orchestrated this destruction, possibly by hiring one of CJW's employees 'under the table.' "

Alan Perkovich, CJW's project manager at the site, insisted the equipment was used without the company's permission and that his employees were not involved.

If the city finds who did it, the culprit would not only be charged thousands of dollars in restoration fees but could also be fined for violating the Coastal Act, which could range from $500 to $30,000, Willis said.

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