RIO DEL MAR—A fire that apparently started in a pile of rubble in an alleyway behind the SeaBreeze Tavern late Sunday night has destroyed the building, bringing to a close a story that began when it was built 92 years ago in what was then a burgeoning beachfront mecca.

Firefighters responded to a call of a blaze around 9:30pm. The flames chewed their way from the alleyway into the building and, fed by piles of items stored inside, quickly engulfed the building and weakened the exterior walls, said Aptos/La Selva Fire Protection District Fire Marshall Mike DeMars.

Fearing for their safety, fire crews exited the building and focused on defending the surrounding buildings, DeMars said.

A fire inspector on Monday called the building a total loss. 

“It’s probably coming down,” DeMars said.

The cause is still under investigation, he said. There were no injuries.

Former owner Thomas Richard “Rich” McInnis, who was still living in the residential apartment above the tavern despite losing the building to foreclosure, said he was out of town when he got news of the fire.

“I spent my life’s savings, and blood, sweat and tears to restore it and run it, and I am heartbroken at the condition it’s currently in now,” he said. “I just wish I had been on site Sunday and not over the hill in San Jose when the fire broke out, so I could have seen or smelled the smoke and put it out earlier and or called the fire department sooner.” 

Firefighters use an aerial ladder to pump water into the roof of the SeaBreeze Tavern Sunday night where flames engulfed the historic building. — contributed

The recent sale

The property was in foreclosure and was sold in February for $1,043,500 in a bank auction to Champery Rental Reo LLC, which is a subsidiary of Redondo Beach-based Wedgewood. The company bills itself as an “integrated network” of companies that specialize in acquiring “distressed residential real estate.” 

Company representatives said they are “evaluating their options” for the future of the property.

In the weeks before the fire struck, Santa Cruz realtor Mark Vincent, who served as Champery’s “boots on the ground” salesman, said that Wedgewood typically restores and resells distressed and foreclosed properties.

Even before the fire occurred, the decrepit SeaBreeze—and its neighbors along the Esplanade—were players in a story that started in 1928, when A.A. Liederbach built it to serve as headquarters for Peninsula Properties, which was developing the Rio Del Mar area to serve crowds of tourists, according to the Aptos History Museum.

The building has held several businesses since then, most recently the SeaBreeze Tavern. Georgia May Derber owned the business for 20 years, using inheritance to purchase it when she was 27. But she allowed the business to fall into disrepair and, when the business closed for good in 1988, lived as a hermit in her upstairs apartment until she was discovered dead there in 2004.

When McInnis bought the tavern in 2005 for just over $1.3 million, county leaders and residents saw him as a knight in shining armor who would restore it, said former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ellen Pirie.

That was not the case.

“There was certainly a lot of hope at the beginning that the SeaBreeze could become that sort of neighborhood-community focal point that people hoped it could be,” Pirie said. 

The county “tried to bend over backward” to help him get permits, she added, but they all came to naught.

“If you had told me 15 years ago that we would be talking about this, and that it wouldn’t have progressed in any way, I just wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” she said.

SeaBreeze Aptos
The SeaBreeze Tavern in Aptos, shown here three weeks ago, has been closed down for more than a year. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Through the years, the SeaBreeze has been both an eyesore and a headache for the community, befouled with discarded furniture and other junk outside. 

Perhaps most famously, a toilet was visible on the deck over the main entrance.

McInnis said that the toilet was placed there by Derber.

“I was just carrying on her tradition,” he said. “Some customers liked and the haters hated it, what are you gonna do, the haters are gonna hate.”

Complaints from neighbors have included storing trash around the property, installing barbed wire and allowing RVs to park on the streets adjacent to the building, said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, whose Second District covers the seaside town.

“Over time, the SeaBreeze has morphed from a historic crown jewel of the Esplanade to a site of neglect, disrepair and illicit activity,” he said. “Clearly, the community expects better, and hopefully the new owners can work to help anchor the renaissance already beginning in the Rio Del Mar Flats.”

McInnis said he spent all of his savings restoring the place and getting his liquor license, leaving him unable to hire employees or make further improvements.

Legal troubles

McInnis was arrested in July 2018 for domestic abuse, false imprisonment and resisting arrest, and in November of that year for violating a protective order.

He was also arrested in 2015 for running an illegal cannabis dispensary out of the tavern.

He permanently lost his liquor license in 2017 after he was hit with a multiple-count complaint by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). At the time, McInnis said that he was not fighting the revocation because he planned to switch to cannabis-infused drinks. That plan never came to fruition.

If it had, McInnis said, the SeaBreeze would be a thriving business today.

ABC spokesman John Carr said that McInnis also failed to pay license renewal fees.

According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, McInnis filed for bankruptcy 12 times between 2008 and 2018, all of which were denied by the court.

The five most recent cases, the court said, were dismissed for failure to file required documents.

McInnis said that the dismissal came as “political retribution” by county officials for his unsuccessful run for County Supervisor in 2012. In that election, he garnered just over 6% of the vote, placing him dead last in a field of five candidates.

“Mr. McInnis claims that his string of bankruptcy filings was due to the economic recession and a conspiracy against him perpetrated by the local government,” the court stated in a filing.

The most recent permit that allowed McInnis to run a bar-cafe—and to occupy two residential units on the second story above the tavern—was issued on June 15, 2007, said Santa Cruz County Principal Planner Matt Johnson. 

The tavern racked up several code complaints over the years, Johnson said, the most recent when McInnis was cited for improper storage and fined more than $10,000, a bill he has never paid.

Most recently, county inspectors responded to a complaint of storage containers being illegally kept on the property, Johnson said.

The county took over two vacant lots adjacent to the tavern in 2017 after McInnis failed to pay more than $100,000 in delinquent property taxes.

A photo from 1928 of the historic Aptos building that burned down Sunday. — courtesy of the Aptos History Museum

The future

Friend and McInnis have had their run-ins over the years, starting in 2012, when the two ran in the same supervisorial seat, following Pirie’s retirement and Friend handily vanquished his four competitors, including McInnis. 

Over the years, Friend has fielded many complaints from constituents about the SeaBreeze and about McInnis himself.

“He’s obviously a smarter person than I think a lot of people think,” Friend said, “because he’s known how to game every element of the system for a long time—but not for good. He hasn’t used it for good.”

Friend said he is already thinking ahead toward next steps. Should the building get restored, he isn’t sure how that would happen. Since it’s been deemed a historic building, he doesn’t know whether responsibility for its resurrection would fall to local, state or federal authorities.

“There’s a lot of stuff that is gonna have to get worked through, and obviously, you gotta do all that before you hit the rainy season,” he said. 

Given that the smoke has just begun to clear, Friend is quick to add that it’s too early to say what direction discussions will take. He believes the flood insurance on that location, near the mouth of the Aptos Creek could be expensive. And while the property may look like an ideal site for condominiums, Friend doesn’t believe the zoning would support that use. 

Friend said the Aptos Esplanade has enjoyed a renaissance in spite of the SeaBreeze, thanks to the work of Cafe Rio owner Jeanne Harrison, the county’s construction of a new roundabout and also a flood mitigation project. But he adds that Aptos residents continue to long for a revamped SeaBreeze, one on par with the history of the site and commensurate with the work put into the neighborhood in recent years.

“It’s a pretty significant investment that’s gone into the flats, and then you’ve got this guy’s shithole at the corner,” Friend said. “But the community sees [the Seabreeze] still in those early photos from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s [and thinks] about how and what it could be. Now that it’s been burned, I think that the question is ‘What can it even be?’”