Cyclists ride past people playing volleyball at the Jonathan Beach Club along the Santa Monica bike path Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — A more than 75-year-old oceanfront social club can continue to boast sunbathing on the sand for its members after the City Council decided to extend a lease of three beach parcels for another decade.

The council ruled on Tuesday that there’s been no material change in the public’s need for roughly 39,000 square feet of beach since the Jonathan Club began renting it in 1984, directing its staff to prepare a resolution supporting that finding.

It also accepted an offer by the club to pay City Hall approximately $125,000 in annual rent, donate $75,000 yearly for capital improvements to be used at the sole discretion of city officials, and forgive approximately $212,300 in overpaid rent. The club currently pays $975 a year in rent.

In exchange City Hall will release the club from any claims that it previously encroached onto public beach space that’s not covered in the lease.

“We felt that there was a very strong position that we were entitled to exercise the option and the city didn’t necessarily agree so we needed to resolve it,” Tom Larmore, an attorney representing the Jonathan Club, said. “That was our proposal to put the dispute behind us.”

The next step for the club is to appear before the state Park and Recreation Commission for approval. The new terms will begin on Jan. 1, 2010 and terminate automatically on Dec. 31, 2019.

The ruling that there hasn’t been any material change in the public’s need for the three parcels, which run parallel to the main facility, came after several councilmembers had a change of heart.

Mayor Ken Genser said the issue of extending the lease first came up during a closed session about a year ago when he was adamantly opposed to exercising the option.

“I strongly believed the public beach is the public’s and the public should have access to all of the beach,” he said.

But then he saw an aerial photograph of the club and found that the parcels were significantly small compared to the rest of the available beach.

“I thought it could be very difficult to say when these are such small parcels of land … that we need those specific parcels when there’s so much other available land there,” he said.

He added that even if the council concluded that there is a need for the spaces, the club could pursue litigation.

City staff said that beach usage and demand from groups like youth camps has increased in the past 25 years. The beach has also seen more cyclists, which has resulted in conflicts with pedestrians on the bike path.

Officials with the beach club countered that the number of beach visitors has actually declined since 1984, quoting data from the county that there were 8.73 million visitors in 1983-84, dropping to 3.87 million in 2007. The figures conflict with City Hall’s data.

In a report to the council last month, Barbara Stinchfield, the director of community and cultural services, said that the club’s lease was entered during El Niño when the weather phenomenon increased the water temperature significantly, drawing more visitors to the beach. But even taking El Niño into consideration, the county’s statistics for the North Beach do not show a sharp decline in visitors, Stinchfield said.

City officials have also said that the North Beach suffers from accessibility issues because of the bluffs acting as a barrier between the main part of the city and the beach. Documents such as the Land Use and Circulation Element Strategy Framework, Open Space Element and Parks and Recreation Master Plan have called City Hall to take steps to better strengthen that portion of the beach through new parks or pedestrian path extensions.

Genser said the offer by the club could help City Hall to fund those improvements in a timelier fashion than would otherwise be possible.

The lease extension has been opposed by groups like the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition.

Councilman Kevin McKeown was the lone vote in opposition.

“Having read the staff reports, I am convinced by the information that staff has compiled that there is a significant material increase in the need for our beaches for public use,” he said. “I can’t get to the point of entertaining the proposal.”

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