How many grains of sand make a pile? After how long does that pile become a dune, an essential part of the landscape? And if you were to move that dune, would it be construction, demolition or simply maintenance? Most of all, would you need a permit?
To Rollin Bruce, a homeowner in Stinson Beach, these questions are not mere thought experiments: they are worth up to $15,000 for each day since he bulldozed a small dune at the end of Calle del Pinos last week, work he completed without a permit and in alleged violation of the Coastal Act.
Since then, neighbors have complained, the county has asked the California Coastal Commission to enforce the law and Mr. Bruce will likely soon find himself applying for a permit to restore the dune to its original location.
Mr. Bruce says he only wanted to have a permanent parking spot to increase his chances of selling his home. During the summer, the highway and streets leading to Stinson Beach are lined with cars, a madhouse of drivers hunting for an open space.
“On hot days,” the National Park Service warns, “the parking lot often fills before noon, and there are no overflow lots.” Amid the commotion, his neighbors often parked—illegally, Mr. Bruce maintains—in the middle of Calle del Pinos, a public access road, often blocking his cars in the process.
To open up more space, Mr. Bruce planned to move an ice plant-covered dune, about four feet tall and six feet wide and located on the opposite side of the street from his house, which had constrained available parking. He also intended to install pavers and a retaining wall, though he later dropped these elements to avoid any construction work that might require a permit.
Mr. Bruce said he realized action was necessary after two neighbors put houses on the market and closed deals this year for $1.58 million and $1.94 million, while his house has had only one showing since it went on the market in June. On Fathers’ Day, he sat outside and watched a potential buyer and real estate agent approach the house, motion to all the cars, shrug and walk away.
“It’s something I’m so used to, but no one else wants to deal with this crazy parking situation,” Mr. Bruce said.
After learning of his plan to move the sand, one neighbor contacted the county’s Community Development Agency in June. (The neighbor could not be reached for comment.) The CDA told Mr. Bruce that bulldozing would be considered “development” under the Coastal Act and the county zoning code, and that he would need a permit. Debbi Poiani, the county’s senior code enforcement specialist, said the dune had existed for at least 15 years, according to aerial photographs, making it a fixture of the environment.
The CDA “said I wanted to take out a protected dune,” Mr. Bruce said. “It was not protected. It was a pile of sand.”
Figuring his chances of obtaining a coastal development permit were slim and, at best, months away, Mr. Bruce decided to continue without one. In his mind, he was only doing maintenance, which is generally permitted under the Coastal Act.
A tractor arrived on a recent Monday to move the sand. The sheriff’s deputies showed up shortly after. But by the time CDA reached Mr. Bruce, the work was mostly done. After failing to reach him by phone, Ms. Poiani emailed him: “Stop all work in the road right-of-way. A COASTAL PERMIT IS REQUIRED FOR THE REMOVAL OF THE SAND IN THE RIGHT-OF-WAY AND YOU DO NOT HAVE A PERMIT!!!”
Mr. Bruce replied by email the next day that he had been doing maintenance work to remove overgrown ice plant.
Ms. Poiani responded the same day that regardless of their interpretations of his actions, he did not have “the authority to proceed.” If he and the county disagreed, she wrote, there was a proper process for appeal.
The sheriff’s deputies received additional calls later in the week. Mr. Bruce said a deputy called last Saturday to tell him that he would be arrested if he made any further attempts to remove the dune. Mr. Bruce told officers he had finished what he needed to do. The sand was raked and cleaned, he said.
“No construction was planned, and I did not do any construction,” Mr. Bruce told the Light. “That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
After her first email, Ms. Poiani asked the coastal commission to assist with “prompt enforcement,” since “there are other similarly situated streets in the area (with dunes at the end of the road, near the beach).”
The commission has since informed Mr. Bruce he allegedly violated the Coastal Act, and listed a number of penalties. The commission could order restoration of the dune, as they did in Newport Beach in 2005 after five homeowners bulldozed a sand dune.
And, in a twist of fate, Mr. Bruce would likely have to apply for a permit from the county to complete the restoration, as the county would “probably want to regulate the manner in which it was restored,” said Jo Greenberg, an enforcement analyst for the commission.
At worst, the commission could settle with Mr. Bruce or sue him for civil penalties through the attorney general, a redress they have resorted to only a few times over the past decade. If the commission could prove Mr. Bruce intentionally developed the road without a permit, penalties could range from $1,000 to $15,000 each day the violation stands.
In the meantime, Mr. Bruce’s house is still on the market, with the latest asking price at $1.725 million.
He blames his former neighbors for “starting this big sandstorm” because the dune had been hiding their own encroachments on the public road. Others had been parking in the street and edging their ropes and entry ways forward, Mr. Bruce said, because visitors flood the beach and “will camp right on the side of your house.”
He said he had never complained and felt targeted, with a few neighbors making a mountain out of a sand pile. “Hopefully,” he said of the sandy controversy, “this will all blow over.”