Coastal Commission votes to enforce construction of beach accessway, parking lot

This photo shows where the path from Pacific Coast Highway to Escondido Beach will be built. The green square is where a small parking lot is to be built. Contributed photo illustration.

Two property owners have agreed to foot the bill of nearly $4 million for trail leading down to Escondido Beach 

At the June 7 Coastal Commission meeting, the commission voted unanimously to accept the enforcement actions taken to create a quarter-mile long beach access trail from Pacific Coast Highway down steep terrain to Escondido Beach, as well as a small public parking lot near PCH.

The parking lot and trail will be located on parts of two adjacent properties — one owned by the Donahue L. Wildman Family Trust located at 27910 and 27856 Pacific Coast Highway, and one owned by the Mancuso Family Revocable Trust at 27920 Pacific Coast Highway. Neither of the current owners had property here back in 1978 when the commission required the trail easement, or in 1981 when it asked for a second easement for a parking lot.

The easements were originally accepted by the Coastal Conservancy and are currently held by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) and managed by the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority (MRCA), both headed by Joe Edmiston.

Following the establishment of the easements, the properties started changing hands in the 1980s, and there’s no indication one way or the other whether the new owners knew the easements existed. Over the years, the owners added things like fencing, paving, and storage sheds on top of the trail and parking lot easements. The commission and MRCA/SMMC now refer to these additions as “unpermitted development.”

“The proposed resolution presents an opportunity not only to finally open this accessway, but also to greatly enhance it and fully construct it with expensive improvements, at no cost to the public,” Coastal Commission staff wrote in last week’s report.

In staff’s presentation to the commission, they described the resolution with the current property owners as “amicable” and cooperative.

Edmiston made a brief public comment, saying “We’re happy to be a partner here and we appreciate the work of the Coastal Commission staff.”

While Coastal recognizes the Wildman Family Trust didn’t [commit] the “unpermitted development” violations, in order to resolve the issue, the family has agreed to pay over $3 million for the construction of the public accessway and parking lot. The Coastal Commission also recognizes that Mancuso wasn’t responsible for the violations on his property, but says he will resolve the issue by paying a penalty of $600,000. 

“The trustees have agreed to construct a 10-foot wide public beach accessway from PCH, down the bluff, through the arroyo and on to the mean high-tide line on the sand,” the commission staff report said. “This will involve complex engineering, stairs, and possibly an elevated boardwalk at the bottom of the arroyo. In addition, the Wildman Family Trust has agreed to move the public parking easement entirely onto their property and expand it to better accommodate the proposed plans of the MRCA.”

This saga started 45 years ago, back in 1978, when property owner Ken Chiate applied for a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) to subdivide a five-acre blufftop property that stretched from PCH to the ocean. 

The Coastal Commission approved the subdivision and found there was an existing beach access trail that went down an arroyo (small canyon) to the beach, and although it was storm damaged, they required the property owner to record a public easement for it. 

The Coastal Commission then required a second easement in 1981 for a small parking lot off PCH for public access to the trail.

The Chiates, instead of recording a zig-zag trail easement along the bottom of the arroyo where the trail actually was, simply drew a straight line on the map from PCH to the beach and that’s what got legally recorded — the commission was unaware of the steep terrain there.

The Chiates also adjusted the lot lines of two adjacent lots, creating a zig-zag property boundary with the beach access trail and public parking easements; before that, the easements were all on one property. Chiate then argued to commission staff that the beach access trail would be too hard to improve.

After the Coastal Commission got the authority to start levying administrative fines against Coastal Act violators in 2014, the enforcement staff decided to renew its investigation into the Escondido Beach easements. In 2017, they sent Notice of Violation letters to Don Wildman and Frank Mancuso. In 2018, Don Wildman passed away. 

The Wildman Family Trust is now expected to submit Coastal Development Permit (CDP) applications within 90 days, and prepare a Restoration Plan within 150 days, with the following separate plans: Removal, Remedial Grading, Temporary Erosion Control, Revegetation and Monitoring.

Examples of the “unpermitted development” on the easements that will have to be removed include a gate, fencing, paved driveway, electrical equipment, landscaping, walls, a partial staircase, concrete mailbox, a curb, dog kennel/bird aviary, garage, part of a shed, watercraft storage, wooden posts, mature but non-native landscaping, and the like.

The project is expected to be completed by the beginning of 2025, and no public access will be allowed until then because of the steep terrain and construction equipment.