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Senator Steven Bradford. (Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

Bill To Give Beach Property Back To Original Owners After Nearly 100 Years Passes Senate

Many have praised the bill for reversing eminent domain decisions, hoping it leads to more land around the state opened for new development

By Evan Symon, September 10, 2021 11:25 am

A bill that would return Bruce’s Beach, currently a part of Manhattan State Beach in the Los Angeles County city of Manhattan Beach, back to the descendants of the original owners from nearly a century ago, was approved unanimously by the Senate on Thursday, moving the bill up to be decided on by the Governor.

Senate Bill 796, authored by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), would specifically exclude the Bruce’s Beach area of Manhattan State Beach from public recreation and beach purpose use and would instead be sold, transferred, or encumbered upon terms and conditions determined by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to be in the best interest of the county and the general public. If signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, the Director of Parks and Recreation would have until the end of the year to write up the new deed that removes Bruce’s Beach from their current restrictions.

Numerous amendments to the bill since May when it originally first moved up to a first Senate vote, added numerous tax, fair market value transfer, eminent domain, and other financial and property-based changes to help ensure a smooth property transfer back to the descendants of the original owners.

In particular, SB 796 added, at the insistence of Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, exactly why the transfer to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce was happening and why an eminent domain decision needed to be reversed.

Specifically, the bill confirms that the African American Bruces’ bought the beachfront property in Manhattan Beach in 1912, creating a resort that catered to black residents. Because most beaches at the time were unwelcome to black beachgoers, Bruce’s Beach quickly grew in popularity. However, for the next 12 years, many groups, including the KKK, continually threatened them, leading the Manhattan Beach City Council to take the beach by eminent domain in 1924.

Throughout the decades, control of the beach went between the city the state and the county before finalizing control by LA County in 1995, where it became the home of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Headquarters. However, all of those years of transfers led to increased difficulty in legally transferring the property, with the 1995 transfer requiring that state legislation was needed to transfer the property once again.

In the early 2020’s, following the George Floyd incident and more calls for racial justice, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn announced her intention of returning the beach back to the Bruce family, getting the support of Senator Bradford to introduce it in the Senate earlier this year.

Unanimous support for SB 796

Since introduction, the bill has received unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats in both houses of the legislature. While both parties generally agree that the facts show that the land was wrongly taken from the family in 1924 and that it should be given back as a result, each side also gave more specific reasonings.

Democrats focused largely on the social justice aspects of the bill, as well as SB 796 also possibly serving as a model for what reparations could look like in California.

“The bill will finally do the right thing, to undo a wrong committed by the city of Manhattan Beach and aided by the state and the county,” noted Senator Bradford on Thursday. “It represents economic and historic justice and is a model of what reparations can truly look like.”

Others noted that the bill could also invite more people to use the beach.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke. (Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

“As a member who has a district that’s 20 minutes from the beach and have an African American community and a Latino community who have never seen the ocean, this is one small step to remind my community that they are welcome at the beach,” added Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey).

Many Republicans, as well as many property developers, have equally praised the bill for reversing eminent domain decisions and possibly leading to more land around the state being opened up for new development.

“Many are hoping that this can help fight back against eminent domain and shore up more land for development,” said Roger Calhoun, a land buyer and seller in California, to the Globe. “Everyone wins. An injustice is reversed, new land is opened up, it strikes a blow against eminent domain, and may lead to more wrongs being righted. The public does lose a small part of a State Beach, but with so much beach in LA County open to the public, it’s really not that big.

“The possibilities here are really exciting. This is land we usually dream of opening up, and it may here. The family always wanted a beach resort, and they may see it now.”

However, for the descendants of the Bruce family, Thursday’s Senate approval goes past reparations, and land development, and numerous rounds of legalese amendments. It’s simply about getting back what was illegally taken from them in the first place.

“I’m elated, walking on water right now,” Duane Shepard, a descendant of the Bruces, on Thursday. “This is one of the greatest things in American history right now. This is going to be the start of something really big for our people now.”

SB 796 is expected to be signed into law by Governor Newsom within the next month. However, even if the bill is signed, the land transfer still depends on approval from Los Angeles County Supervisors.

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