Proposed Shell Beach homes would block ocean views for the public, lawsuit claims

An aerial photo shows the site of the proposed Shell Beach townhome project
An aerial photo shows the site of the proposed Shell Beach townhome project

A proposed townhouse project in Shell Beach would obstruct rare ocean views from Highway 101 if it’s built, according to a lawsuit filed this week.

Marilyn Hansen, who lives in Shell Beach, filed a petition for writ of mandamus in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Monday, asking the court to reverse the California Coastal Commission’s approval of the project, noting that the commission’s own staff had described ocean views there as “critically important” and the only stretch of Highway 101 between Gaviota and the Golden Gate Bridge where travelers can see the Pacific.

“Just as importantly, this location currently affords clear ocean views to visitors and local residents of Pismo Beach as they walk, jog, bike, ride or drive along Shell Beach Road, a designated scenic roadway,” according to the suit filed by San Jose attorney Robert J. Gundert.

In paperwork submitted to the Coastal Commission, attorneys for the developers argue that the project would provide “100 percent sweeping unobstructed blue-water views of the ocean from Highway 101 over the tops of the structures.”

Bakersfield-based Silver Shoals Investors LLC has proposed a 19-lot development with 10 townhomes and nine single-family residences adjacent to Silver Shoals Drive. The currently empty lot is on a stretch where motorists can see waves from the highway. At the western edge of the lot, a dirt path leads to a somewhat rugged cliff trail that provides beach access.

Steve Kaufman, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the developers, said he could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, which he has not seen.

Claims made in a civil complaint only represent one side of the story.

According to paperwork Kaufman filed with the Coastal Commission, the project would include a public bluff-top park with a lateral access trail, public benches, bike racks and picnic tables. The single-family homes would be limited to 15 feet in height, while development on all other lots would be slightly less than 25 feet.

But views will be obstructed, Gundert said.

“Any time you build something, it’s certainly going to have an impact on the viewshed,” he told The Tribune.

According to Gundert’s lawsuit, the development would block 80 percent of the blue-water view from the highway and substantially more from Shell Beach Road.

“The only rationale for allowing real party’s development to proceed in the manner so approved would be to permit real party to maximize its profits,” Gundert wrote.

The matter went to the Coastal Commission in January 2015 after the city of Pismo Beach approved a coastal development permit. Coastal Commission staff “recommended specific conditions of approval requiring project modifications to protect visual and scenic resources,” Gundert wrote.

A report prepared by the Coastal Commission staff expressed concern for view blockage, concluding that “development must make every feasible effort not to degrade the critically important views from Highway 101.”

The project’s tallest buildings, at 25 feet, would block 50 percent of ocean views as currently as now seen from Highway 101, the staff concluded. However, the staff suggested that with modifications — namely reduced heights — the project could proceed with as much as 80 percent of ocean views intact.

On Nov. 5, the commission approved the permit with special conditions, though it won’t be clear what the conditions are until the commission releases its findings.

Calls to Brian O’Neill, a Coastal Commission planner for the project, and Coastal Commission spokeswoman Sarah Christie were not returned Wednesday or Thursday.

In the lawsuit, Gundert said the commission approved the project without the visual protection conditions its staff had proposed.

Gundert wrote that the commission staff must bring its revised findings to the commission before the commission can approve the project. His petition also asks for further hearings that would give his client and the public an opportunity to address the project.

Kaufman, representing the developers, said the commission did not err in its approval.

“I think the commission’s decision was well-supported,” Kaufman told The Tribune.

In an October letter to the commission, Kaufman wrote that the commission staff had contradicted earlier findings regarding the views. Other parcels in the area have been similarly developed, he added, and “all block some ocean view from Highway 101, but permit blue-water views over the tops of the structures and intermittent ocean views down the streets between Shell Beach Road and the ocean bluff.”

But according to the commission’s staff report, past developments don’t necessarily factor into the decision on this one.