Huntington Beach Squares Off with State in Court Over Beach Closure

SANTA ANA (CNS) - An Orange County Superior Court judge today said he would likely rule by week's end on requests for an injunction prohibiting Gov. Gavin Newsom from shutting down the county's beaches again under his authority during the COVID-19 emergency.

“You folks have given me a lot to think about,” Judge Nathan Scott told attorneys following oral arguments on Monday. “I am going to take these matters under submission, and I will issue written rulings likely by the end of the week.”

Scott will be ruling on a lawsuit filed by residents, and another by Huntington Beach. They largely raise many of the same issues, but the city's lawsuit also involves an argument about local versus state authority.

Scott began the hearing asking the attorneys what sort of order they wanted in light of the beaches in the county all having reopened under an active-use plan approved by the state. Attorneys for the state have argued the issue is moot.

Attorney Bilal A. Essayli argued that Newsom “has made it clear this is a day to day” situation with conditions allowing beach access, so the plaintiffs want an order preventing the governor from shutting down the beaches again.

Attorney Michael Gates, who represents the city, also argued that the active-use plan violates constitutional rights of the disabled, the homeless and parents who want to bring very young children to the beaches for passive uses. That would leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits, he said.

Essayli disputed that the cities “collaboratively” agreed to active- use plans on the beaches and said it was “wholly coercive.”

Gates also argued city officials had taken “significant steps” before the shutdown to enforce social distancing at the beach and to reduce crowds, such as closing down parking lots and other popular spots on the beaches.

“In fact, other cities in the area were calling our city to find out what we were doing and how we were doing it,” Gates said. “The city had full control of the situation and it was working... There was no reason for the governor to step in.”

Deputy Attorney General Mark Beckington argued that Newsom has the authority during a declared emergency such as a global pandemic to issue orders to cities regarding public safety.

“Clearly, there was overcrowding on the beaches,” he said. “And we have a pandemic... this requires a statewide response.”

COVID-19 is “not bound by the borders of each city or town... and, unfortunately, we're not out of the woods yet,” Beckington said.

The rules on the beaches prohibit sunbathing and other passive uses of the beaches in favor of swimming, jogging, walking and other active recreation.

Dana Point, which joined Huntington Beach's lawsuit, dropped out of it after reaching a compromise for active recreation on its beaches.

California Governor Newsom Orders All Beaches In State To Close

However, Huntington Beach attorneys argue in court papers that Newsom's executive order on April 30 “continues to infringe on the constitutional powers vested in local municipalities, which are subject to the ultimate approval of the state, despite the compromise regarding the partial reopening of some Orange County beaches.”

The city argued “overarching legal questions and disputes continue and are likely to recur in the future.”

Newsom ordered the shutdown of Orange County's beaches after admonishing local leaders to do something about the mass congregating of beachgoers in defiance of social distancing rules meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.

City councils in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente joined the county in balking at calls to close the beaches, prompting Newsom to order a shutdown of the county's beaches.

Huntington Beach argues in court papers that the state continues to hold out a threat of a beach shutdown based on the governor's authority during an emergency.

“The controversy at the heart of this action -- who has the power over local beaches and who is accountable for those decisions -- is as present now as it was when plaintiffs filed this action” on May 1, the city argues in court papers.

“The state will no doubt exercise that power should it again conclude that activities at local beaches create an unsafe condition, as it did when issuing the April 30 directive based on sensationalized photographs” in local newspapers, the city argues.

City officials also returned to an argument they used when challenging the state's sanctuary laws to protect immigrants in the country without legal permission. Huntington Beach is a charter city, granting it more authority than general law cities, they argue.

Huntington Beach claims that as a charter city it is “free from any interference by the state through the general laws.”

Photos: Getty Images

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