Opening a new front in the battle over Malibu beach access, California regulators have sent warning letters to the operator of tony Paradise Cove after complaints from surfers about harassment as well as exorbitant walk-in and parking fees.
Documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and interviews indicate that the California Coastal Commission investigation was sparked by multiple episodes over the last year. Some involved members of the Black Surfers Collective, a nonprofit group that promotes diversity in the sport, who said they were not allowed to carry their surfboards across the sand at Paradise Cove.
Another concerned a surfer who said he and a friend were required to pay $40 to a parking lot attendant in September to avoid a trespassing charge.
"We're very troubled, and we're looking into it," said Sarah Christie, the Coastal Commission's legislative coordinator. "These things are always more complicated than they appear, but we hope to resolve the situation quickly in the public's favor."
In a letter to the operator of Paradise Cove, the Coastal Commission said that charging a fee for those seeking access to Paradise Cove pier and beach violated terms of the company's lease with the California State Lands Commission. The agency said the operator also restricted access by building an unpermitted gate that blocks the pier.
"Paradise Cove is prohibited from taking actions to limit reasonable use of the access by the public," the Coastal Commission said. "Access for the purposes of surfing is certainly a reasonable use."
Kissel Co., operating as Paradise Cove Land Co., holds a 10-year lease on the property that expires in 2019. Efforts to reach Steven F. Dahlberg, president of Paradise Cove Land Co., were unsuccessful.
The State Lands Commission also wrote to Dahlberg saying his company's lease with the state requires that Paradise Cove provide access "to and through the leased area for the general public, including non-paying visitors."
"The lessee shall take no action to discourage reasonable use by the general public of this access," the lease states.
Paradise Cove's website indicates that visitors who walk in must pay a $20 fee.
Paradise Cove adjusts the parking lot fee depending on the season and has at times charged as much as $50, according to Jeff Williams, co-president of the Black Surfers Collective, one of those who complained to the coastal agency.
Oren Dothan, an architect from Israel who has lived in the Los Angeles area for 15 years, also filed a complaint to the Coastal Commission.
Dothan, 41, said he took David Harazi, a friend who lives in Australia, to Paradise Cove on Sept. 6. They paid for parking, donned their wetsuits and grabbed their boards.
A parking lot attendant told them they couldn't take their boards to the beach. "We'll tow your car," Dothan said the attendant told them. "It's private property."
So the men drove out of the parking lot, parked on Pacific Coast Highway and carried their boards down Paradise Cove Road — a road that is lined with signs painted on surfboards saying "No Surfboards" and "Parking $40."
Once again, parking lot attendants turned them away. But Dothan said he told them: "You can't tell me I can't go to the beach."
He and Harazi paddled out. A Paradise Cove lifeguard chased them into the water and "kind of harassed us for 10 or 15 minutes," Dothan said. Harazi and Dothan decided to leave the water.
Onshore, Dothan said, they were met by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who told them that Paradise Cove's owner had the right to press charges against them for trespassing and deceiving a merchant.
Dothan, who in his profession has dealt with the coastal panel, told the deputy that California guarantees public access seaward of the mean high tide line — in other words, on damp sand. "They noticed I know what I'm talking about," Dothan said.
The deputy chatted again with the Paradise Cove people and then, according to Dothan, told Dothan and Harazi: "If you each pay $20, we'll let you go." Dothan said they walked up to their car, with the deputy following them, and then returned with $20 each, which they paid to the parking lot attendant.
Christie said that Dothan's allegations, if true, are troubling. "It's shocking that a private party would have the audacity to require payment for surfing in state waters," she said. "This is public space, and surfing is not a crime."
A spokesman for the Sheriff's Department did not return calls requesting comment.
In its early days, Paradise Cove, with views of secluded sand and a cafe, was home to director Sam Peckinpah and Otis Chandler, publisher of The Times. More recently, directors Christopher Nolan and Tom Shadyac, "SpongeBob SquarePants" creator Stephen Hillenburg, Pamela Anderson and Minnie Driver have called the gated community home.
It was known as the setting for private eye Jim Rockford's Nashua house trailer in TV's "The Rockford Files."
Many of the residents occupy tricked-out mobile homes with marble floors and high-end appliances that would sell for millions of dollars.
Even with its lofty parking and restaurant rates for visitors, Paradise Cove has become a popular destination — so popular, in fact, that the parking lot often fills up. With parking scarce, the backup spills onto PCH, posing risks for pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.
In February the city of Malibu and Caltrans erected "no parking" signs for about 100 yards on either side of the entrance to Paradise Cove Road.
The Coastal Commission has appealed the use of those signs, said Matt Myerhoff, a Malibu spokesman.
In April 2013, Kissel filed an application with the city to turn a dirt lot on the property into a proper parking lot to handle some of the overflow parking. The city realized in 2013 that the operator had been improperly using the area for parking.
According to Myerhoff, Dahlberg has told the city that visitors are willing to pay for the experience of perching on an uncrowded beach where they can find clean bathrooms and waiters will bring them cocktails.
Williams said he has tried on occasion to go in with his board at Paradise Cove "but was told in no uncertain terms that surfboards were not allowed."
The nearest public access points — at Escondido Beach and Point Dume — are too distant to make it practical for surfers to reach Little Dume. He said he has paddled 40 minutes each way from Latigo to reach Little Dume.
"Sometimes it's worth it," he said.