Bruce’s Beach bill at edge of becoming law after Assembly vote

A state bill that would set the stage for Los Angeles County to return a sliver of oceanfront land in Manhattan Beach to the family of the property’s original Black owners is at the brink of becoming law, though legislative deadlines loom.

Senate Bill 796 passed unanimously in the state Assembly Wednesday, Sept. 8, but because of non-substantive amendments from that body, it must pass once more in the Senate by the end of Friday before going to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for his signature.

That is likely to happen.

The bill, which is considered a first-of-its-kind proposal, initially passed the Senate unanimously in June.

The Senate could vote on the final version as early as Thursday, Sept. 9, according to the office of state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who authored SB 796. Friday is the end of the legislative session, so the bill must get the final OK by then.

“We fully expect it’ll get similar level of support” as it did in June, Bradford’s office said Wednesday.

Newsom’s office last week said the governor does not typically comment on pending legislation. The bill, however, has had wide bipartisan support during its journey through the state Legislature.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, a coauthor of the bill, said Wednesday that SB 796’s passage is a signal to Black people and other people of color in her South Bay district that they can access the beach even if they don’t live right near it.

“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,” Burke, whose district includes Inglewood and Hawthorne, “this is one small step to remind my community that they are welcome at the beach.”

Willa and Charles Bruce operated a flourishing seaside resort for African Americans on two parcels of oceanfront land in Manhattan Beach in the early 20th century, at a time when Black people had limited access to the ocean. But they, as well as those who visited the resort and Manhattan Beach’s other African American residents, faced harassment from some White neighbors who didn’t want Black people in the community, according to historical records.

Manhattan Beach leadership at the time condemned the Bruces’ land, as well as that of other property owners, in 1924 and took it over through eminent domain.

The city still owns the land it obtained from other property owners via eminent domain. That land sits above the Bruces’ two parcels and decades later became Bruce’s Beach Park.

Manhattan Beach gave the Bruces’ land to the state in 1948. The state handed over those parcels and larger swaths of the beach to LA County in 1995.

But under that transfer, the county, which operates a lifeguard station on the former Bruce’s Beach Lodge, cannot give or sell the land to anyone else.

SB 796 would give the county the authority to do just that.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose Fourth District includes Manhattan Beach, spearheaded the land-return effort after learning Bruce’s Beach history through a movement to get justice for the family, which began on Juneteenth last year.

“I am determined to return this land,” she tweeted Wednesday, “but I can’t do it without this bill.”

The CA State Assembly is set to vote today on the bill that will allow the @CountyofLA to return Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family.

I am determined to return this land, but I can’t do it without this bill. #SB796 needs to pass the Assembly & the Senate (again) by Sept 10th.

— Janice Hahn (@SupJaniceHahn) September 8, 2021


Once the Senate passes the bill, it would take at most a few days for the physical pages to get processed and given to Newsom, according to Bradford’s office.

And if he signs SB 796, it would go into effect immediately because of an urgency clause in the bill.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, directed officials in July to pursue an action plan to give back the two parcels to the Bruce descendants.

A report on that plan, made by the County CEO’s office and the Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, detailed the complex processes involved in transferring the land, assessing the property’s worth, determining who the legal heirs are, limiting the property tax burden on the family and figuring out what to do with the lifeguard station. More details will come later this year on how to transfer the land once the state allows the county to do so.

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If SB 796 becomes law, state Director of Parks and Recreation Armando Quintero would have to amend the county’s deed on or before Dec. 31 to exclude the Bruces’ property from the restrictions on transferring the land that currently exist.

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