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Senate Panel Moves Bruce's Beach Property Transfer Bill Forward

Apr 29, 2021 08:50AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A sign describing the proposed return of beachfront property to the Bruce family, as seen at an April 9 press conference in Manhattan Beach.

A bill that would return the former Bruce's Beach beachfront resort site to the family of Willa and Charles Bruce took a first step forward by winning unanimous approval from a California State Senate committee on Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water approved SB 796 on a bipartisan 9-0 vote. The bill was on the committee's consent calendar, meaning that it was approved without debate.

The committee is comprised of 7 Democrats and 2 Republicans. Its members include Sen. Henry I. Stern (D) (chair), Sen. Brian W. Jones (R) (vice chair), Sen. Ben Allen (D), Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D), Sen. Shannon Grove (R), Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D), Sen. Ben Hueso (D), Sen. John Laird (D), and Sen. Monique Ramon (D). 

SB 796, sponsored by Sen. Steven Bradford (D), would  exempt the Bruce's Beach property from statutory restrictions on the transference and use of the land, to enable Los Angeles County to transfer the land to the descendants of the Bruce family.

The bill is now headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, and then if approved, to the Senate floor. If it is approved by the Senate, and later by the Assembly, and signed into law by Gov. Newsom, it has an "urgency clause" attached, meaning that it would take effect immediately.

Bill Backers Emphasize Bipartisan Support

Bill sponsor Bradford, as well as L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, thanked the committee for its support after the vote.

“Last year, we passed Dr. Shirley Weber’s legislation that created a Task Force on Reparations. As a member of that task force and the author of this bill, let me tell you: SB 796 is what reparations looks like,” said Bradford in a statement after the committee vote. “This bill recognizes that if you can inherit generational wealth in this country, you can inherit generational debts too. In the case of Willa and Charles Bruce, the city of Manhattan Beach, the county, and the state owe a debt that has been compounding for nearly 100 years. I want to thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their clear support of this bill. When it comes to addressing systemic racism, we all need to get involved. I appreciate my fellow legislators for doing the right thing.”

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn has been one of the lead figures in the effort to return the property to the Bruce family.

“L.A. County intends to return the property that was once Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, but we cannot do that without SB 796,” said Supervisor Hahn in a statement after the Senate committee vote. “I appreciate the committee’s unanimous support and I am hopeful that, with the leadership of Senator Bradford, we will soon see this legislation signed into law and the restrictions on the land lifted so that we can begin to right this century old injustice.”

On April 20, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved motions by Hahn and Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell to make L.A. County an official sponsor of SB 796 and to move the process forward on the county level.

Bruce's Beach Background

The story of Bruce's Beach dates back to the early 1900s, when Charles and Willa Bruce built a popular Black beach resort in Manhattan Beach. The property was one of the very few beaches where Black residents could go, because most other Southern California beaches were off-limits to people of color. 

By the end of the 1920s, with pressure from community members who did not want Black beachgoers in town, Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees (a precursor to the modern city council) claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area.

(Many residents have questioned the fact that landowners of both races had their properties taken via eminent domain during this transaction. However, as Manhattan Beach City Councilmember Steve Napolitano pointed out during the Manhattan Beach City Council's April 6 meeting, "It’s not about the condemnation; they got paid for it. It’s about the racial motivation behind it. If it was just about condemnation, we wouldn’t be here at all.")

The city had claimed that it was taking the land to create a park, but the property remained vacant for decades.

In 1948, the beachfront property once owned by the Bruce family was transferred to the state, with conditions. In 1995, L.A. County accepted control of Bruce’s Beach and other lands from the state.

It was not until 2006 that the city of Manhattan Beach publicly acknowledged this chapter of its history by naming the area east of the beachfront property Bruce's Beach Park, and it was not until the summer of 2020 that a movement began growing for the city to take further action to recognize the Bruces.

After a summer of racial unrest and controversy surrounding the history of Bruce's Beach, the Manhattan Beach City Council agreed to form a task force to look at new ways to recognize and commemorate Bruce's Beach Park. The task force was disbanded after it delivered its report in March (with the exception of the history subcommittee, which is still waiting to access certain documents that have been delayed).

The Bruce's Beach task force had called for an official resolution of apology from the city of Manhattan Beach. After much discussion over several options, the city voted in early April for a "resolution of acknowledgement and condemnation" rather than an apology.

Meanwhile, Hahn and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors have proposed returning the two original parcels of beachfront property that the Bruce family once owned to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. Those beachfront parcels are immediately west of Bruce's Beach Park and are currently the site of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard training headquarters.

Bruce family representatives have not yet said what their plans would be for the property if it were to be returned to them. Hahn has suggested that she would be open to having the Bruce family lease it back to the county for the lifeguard headquarters in exchange for fair market rent.

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