Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach on Thursday, April 8. 2021. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Los Angeles County will officially work to give the portion of Bruce’s Beach it controls to the descendants of the original owners.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously during a Tuesday, April 20, meeting to create a plan to transfer two parcels of coastal property in Manhattan Beach to the Bruce family, whose ancestors once owned a seaside resort for African Americans there but had the land taken away via eminent domain — costing them an opportunity to build generational wealth.

The County CEO’s Office, County Counsel and executive director of racial equality, in consultation with the county fire chief, have 60 days to report back to the board with a plan for how to deed the property to the Bruce family. That plan, which the supervisors would have to OK, will include a timeline, options for addressing property tax issues after the transfer and ways the county could either lease the property from the Bruce family or relocate the lifeguard facility there.

Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell co-authored the motion for the county to return Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. That African American couple bought the two parcels of land in the early 20th century on what’s now The Strand, in Manhattan Beach, and ran a flourishing resort for Black people. They bought up more land over the years, expanding the resort, at a time when Black people had limited options for accessing the coast.

But Manhattan Beach leadership condemned the land, as well as that of other Black property owners, in 1924 and took it over through eminent domain after being pressured by community members who wanted to rid the city of Black people who migrated west to claim their slice of the California dream.

“A lawful, thriving business that provided African Americans access to the beach was intentionally shut down by Manhattan Beach government with the intention of driving out Black families and beachgoers,” Hahn, whose Fourth District includes that city, said Tuesday. “I felt there was nothing else to do but to give the property back to the direct descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.”

Manhattan Beach still owns a large portion of the land, which is currently a park. But the county owns two parcels closest to the water.

Mitchell, for her part, focused on the abuse of eminent domain. Eminent domain is meant to allow the government to gain control of land, via complex legal proceedings, for the public good — but, Mitchell said, has often been a way to strip communities of color of home ownership and multigenerational wealth.

“It’s important that we in government understand the fundamental use of our powers around eminent domain,” Mitchell said, “how delicate that is and that in its use over many decades, underrepresented groups of people, (largely) Black and Brown, have been ravaged.”

The plan county officials must now work on will have to include:

  • A timetable with the required steps to transfer the parcels;
  • Options to avoid or reduce tax burdens following the transfer;
  • Details about whether the county lifeguard station will relocate, and where and how it would be moved; and
  • Potential safeguards to ensure the transfer happens, including descendants’ involvement and possibly naming a third-party trustee to oversee claims of ownership, restoration of title and other necessary procedures.

The Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, also voted unanimously Tuesday to sponsor Senate Bill 796, which, if passed, will allow the county to transfer the land to the Bruce family. The state took over the land from the city in the 1948. The state then gave those to parcels — and larger swaths of the beach — to the county in 1995. But under that transfer agreement, the county cannot sell or give the land to anyone else.

State Sen. Steven Bradford introduced the bill to change that last week.

The Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee is set to hold a hearing on SB 796 on Tuesday, April 27, according to the state Legislature’s website.

If the Natural Resources Committee OKs SB 796, the full Senate will need to vote on it by June 4. It would then move to the Assembly, which would have until Sept. 10 to vote on the bill and send it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

It remains unknown, for now, what the Bruce family would do with the land if the effort now underway succeeds. Duane Shepard, a Bruce member and public representative, said they need discuss that with the future. Still, Shepard said, getting the land back is only a part of what the family wants.

“We wanted the land restored, punitive damages for the police department terrorizing our family and restitution from lost revenue those enterprises would’ve had right now,” Shepard said in an April 8 interview. “Giving back the land doesn’t replace generational wealth.”

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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