Five Newport Beach homeowners have agreed to pay to restore sand dunes flattened in front of their oceanfront homes last spring, plus a total of $225,000 in fines.
Beachgoers awoke one morning in April to discover that a bulldozer had rumbled across the sand sometime overnight just south of the Santa Ana River mouth and scraped away the 3- to 6-foot-high dunes, which stretched a block long.
The homeowners admitted no wrongdoing, and the Orange County district attorney filed no charges. But police concluded the homeowners paid a bulldozer operator $2,000 to level the dunes under cover of night to improve the oceanfront view.
The state Coastal Commission is scheduled to approve a settlement agreement, outlining details of how the dunes are to be rebuilt, at its Feb. 8 meeting in Chula Vista.
A stiff fine was recommended, officials said, because the work was considered unapproved development along the coast, which is protected by state law.
The homeowners couldn't be reached for comment. But Lisa Haage, the Coastal Commission's chief of enforcement in San Francisco, said the fine and recommended restoration plan were a "win-win for us."
"We're excited about it, because this could be a potential enhancement of the area," she said Monday.
"It's a very good-news outcome."
The agreement, signed last week by the homeowners, requires them to pay amounts ranging from $30,000 to $75,000 between May and February 2009. They will have 30 days to hire a restoration ecologist and present a plan to the commission to replant and restore the destroyed sections, which spanned 40 feet wide by 150 feet long.
Agreeing to restore the beach were homeowners David Granoff, Angelo Cassara, Aaron Leffler, Bill Schonlau and Howard Mango.
It took less than three hours to level the dunes, but experts said rebuilding them could take several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The commission's plan calls for the restoration efforts to be monitored for five years.
Sand dunes are a vanishing landform in Southern California.
Protected by state law, many dunes support rare ecosystems. The Newport Beach dunes are particularly important because they are adjacent to one of the few successful breeding colonies of the endangered California least tern, said Aaron McLendon, the commission's statewide enforcement analyst.
The dunes must be carefully resculpted, and native plant life -- such as the purple-flowered sand verbena and yellow-flowered beach evening primrose -- must be coaxed back to life.
One former inhabitant that won't be invited back, officials said, is ice plant, a nonnative species that over time has taken root atop many of Newport's sand dunes.
City officials said they were satisfied that the city-owned beach area would be restored.
"It was a good conclusion," Newport Beach City Manager Homer Bludau said of the settlement agreement. "A strong point was delivered."