California hotel gets $1.6M fine for blocking beach access

California hotel gets $1.6M fine for blocking beach access

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — A posh Northern California hotel was ordered to pay $1.6 million in penalties Thursday for failing to provide public access to its nearby beaches.

All beaches in California are open to the public, with rare exceptions, but the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Half Moon Bay did not make that clear and at times prevented easy access, the California Coastal Commission ruled, the Mercury News of San Jose reported . Rooms at the hotel can cost $1,000 a night.

The commission also said the hotel about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of San Francisco failed to display signs informing the public that beaches are free and open to anyone.

Although the hotel is required to have a free public parking lot with 15 spaces and keep another 25 spaces public in its garage, valets would park cars of hotel guests and golfers in public spaces or refuse public access to those spaces, the commission said.

Shelly Auyeung, communications manager at the Ritz-Carlton in Half-Moon Bay, declined to comment.

"Perhaps creating the illusion of a private beach helps justify the exorbitant cost of the rooms," said Mandy Sackett, state policy director for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group.

The $1.6 million penalty, which was reached as part of a settlement with the hotel, is the second-largest in the history of the coastal commission. Of the penalty, $1 million will go to a commission fund that provides signs, trails, stairs and other amenities to help the public use state beaches. The remaining $600,000 will go to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, a Palo Alto land conservation group, to help purchase a property north of the hotel to expand public beach access.

The company also agreed to expand the beach parking lot to 22 spaces, install signage stating that the beaches are public, better train its staff and post the information on the hotel's website.

Under the terms, the hotel will also face penalties of $25,000 per violation per day for any future violations.

The hotel has previously been fined for violating coastal law. The coastal commission first fined the hotel $50,000 in 2004. After the hotel failed to deliver on promised changes, it paid additional penalties in 2007 and 2011.

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