All agree the sinkhole damage was an emergency situation.
As soon as the Inn at Sunset Cliffs got permission from the city to repair the two huge sinkholes that collapsed its ocean-front deck in December, the owners admit they rushed to get it done. They were concerned opponents — including the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and the owners of a nearby home — would try to block the repairs.
"We knew they would fight it and we were trying to save the inn and the street from collapsing down the bluff," said Paul Robinson, a lawyer who represents the inn. "We barely won their appeal before the city council."
Though the work is done, the opponents are still considering suing the city and the inn over the deck, built after the sinkholes were filled in, according to Livia Borak, the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation lawyer.
"There was an emergency in that there was a big hole in the center of the property," Borak says. "Once the emergency was addressed and the fill was done, we contend there was no longer an emergency. They used the emergency permit to build a whole new deck without following environmental land rules."
Site map (among documents submitted to city council)
For nearly six years, the foundation (which some regard as a attorney-fee-burning, Marco Gonzalez–driven vehicle) has been suing the Inn at Sunset Cliffs over compliance with the Coastal Act — a state law passed in the 1970s, about 20 years after the inn was built. It couldn't be built today, all agree. But they disagree over how much the inn has to comply with the act and how much of its structure is grandfathered in.
Most recently, they disagree over whether the work done on the deck was a repair or an addition — a new structure different from the old one. The inn's website describes the deck as "remodeled in 2016."
The wild El Niño storm in December carved a huge hole in the bluff under the deck, all agree. Two areas of the deck collapsed into it, leaving gaping holes. It wasn't the first time the seawall and bluff beneath needed repairs.
For several years and through several rejections, the inn fought the California Coastal Commission, winning permission to do similar work in 2005. The commission's report indicates that the 24-room hotel with a pool in the courtyard had the upper and lower decks in 1972 aerial photos — before the coastal act was passed. However, the report notes, the decks were not done with city permits, and the lower deck does not appear the same in 2005 as it did in 1972.
The commission decided that the inn could proceed with the emergency repairs to the seawall and sinkhole and the cave that opened up but set the deck repair as a separate matter that would be looked at later, according to the commission report. That's what the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation wanted to see in the emergency repair permit, Borak said.
"The deck is unnecessary," she said. "They had no right to repair an unlawfully constructed, unpermitted deck."
The inn's lawyers disagreed with the argument that the deck is unnecessary and its provenance is questionable.
"The deck is a selling point — it's where they hold weddings and parties that are a significant portion of their revenue stream," Robinson said. "The whole inn was built 1950s, when there were few requirements for constructing things. The coastal act didn't exist and no one thought access to the coast would ever be a problem."
The inn's new owners are working with the city to get retroactive permits for the whole property — including the disputed deck. As long as they are making progress on it, the litigation is on hold, according to court records.
In a recent letter to the city, their lawyers described how the permit process is going.
"The process has been long, due in large part to the continuing obstructionism of the neighbor and of an environmental organization that sought money…. The Inn's fourth screencheck draft environmental impact report just for the surfacing on a decades-old terrace was submitted to the city in November 2015."
Borak says that the rights foundation hasn't decided whether or not to sue over the city council's March 22 denial of their appeal, which essentially upheld the emergency permit. By the time the council voted, the work was done — both to the sinkhole and a new or "remodeled" deck.
"We've been in litigation for six years over the deck," Borak said. "It's crazy. We believe they've come in at night, put up tarps and poured concrete and then cleaned up by morning to get around following environmental law."