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Private club settles sand spat with Santa Monica

Under threat of a lawsuit, the city extends the Jonathan Club's lease on three public beach parcels, with conditions. But the story may be different when the leases expire in 10 years.

September 11, 2009|Martha Groves

Wealthy families have played volleyball and paddle tennis on the sands of Santa Monica's Jonathan Club for generations, but the private social club played its own game of hardball recently when it looked as if it might lose three chunks of public beach property.

With leases set to expire this year on three publicly owned beach parcels, the club threatened to sue Santa Monica if the city failed to renew lease agreements for 10 more years. The city acquiesced last month, after the Pacific Coast Highway club agreed to pay a significant increase in rent and contribute money for annual beach improvements.

The extension, however, may prove to be the last for an exclusive organization that has shared an uneasy relationship with coastal authorities and the city. The parcels are owned by the state and managed by Santa Monica, and officials have voiced concerns about leasing the land to a private club.

"I think that probably a majority of the council strongly believes the beach belongs to the public," said Councilman Richard Bloom. "That should be our goal."

The City Council voted 5 to 1 to approve the package, rejecting a city staff recommendation that said the parcels, totaling about 39,000 square feet, were needed to satisfy increased demands for "surf and sand" camps, a pedestrian path and other public uses.

For its part, the Jonathan Club released a statement saying the deal would "reflect a win for all parties" and provide the city with $2.2 million over the next 10 years.

The parcels sit behind the club's palm tree-studded main building, which opened in 1935 at the foot of the California Avenue "incline." They are east of a public bike path on the beach, fairly distant from the water and, the club contends, "of little value to the public."

Two of the parcels are used for overflow and employee parking. The third parcel, the largest, is used for volleyball, children's parties and seating at tables with the club's trademark teal-colored umbrellas. Many members move tables and umbrellas right up to the water line, on public sand.

Under the new agreement, the club will pay about $125,000 in annual rent and donate $75,000 each year for capital improvements on Santa Monica State Beach. The club now pays $975 a year under a declining rent structure laid out in the initial 1984 lease.

The deal also allows the city to keep $212,300 that the club overpaid in rent, and it releases the club from any claims that it encroached on public beach space not covered by the lease.

The original leases arose from a court battle over whether certain portions of sandy beach were owned by the club or by the state.

Under a 1984 court settlement, Santa Monica and the state agreed to lease three narrow landlocked parcels to the club for 25 years and grant the club an option to lease the parcels at fair market rates for an additional 10 years.

The only condition under which the city could deny the 10-year extension was if it found there had been a "material change" in the public need for each of the parcels.

Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser said he was initially determined to oppose the lease extension. But after seeing an aerial photo and realizing how small the parcels were in relation to the overall beach, he decided it "would be hard to defend [in court] that those specific parcels would be needed." He added, however, that it's "no secret" the club wants to extend the lease again, and "it would be wrong if we extended the lease beyond" the 10 years.

Since its founding in downtown Los Angeles in 1895, the club has had a colorful history involving the region's biggest movers and shakers.

The club is named after "Brother Jonathan," an early symbol of America used in political cartoons and a precursor to Uncle Sam. The club was long considered a bastion of white male privilege and prestige. Women, whether family members or guests, were welcome in certain areas of the Town Club downtown, even if these "Janets of the Jonathan Club" had to reach those areas by a little elevator tucked away in a corner near the entrance.

Notoriously publicity-shy, the club for years declined to speak about its membership policies, but groups such as the Anti-Defamation League contended that women, Jews and members of minority groups were routinely ostracized. (The club at times apparently admitted Jews on a selective basis, according to "The Jonathan Club Story," an authorized history by club member Nat B. Read, published in 2005. In 1930, a Jewish member translated into Yiddish a description of an event for a club newsletter.)

In 1985, the California Coastal Commission ordered the club to renounce discrimination if it wanted to use state-owned land to expand its parking lots and paddle tennis courts. That decision was upheld in 1988 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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