California's historical guarantee of public access to the shoreline has been under increasing attack in recent years, as oceanfront property owners try to ignore the fact that their glorious private views come with a public responsibility. In 2007, there were about 400 open cases of beach access violations before the California Coastal Commission; now there are about 650. New violations pile up faster than old ones can be resolved.
In large part, that's because the commission's only enforcement tool has been its ability to file lawsuits against the property owners, a slow and expensive process. Music magnate David Geffen battled in court for five years to keep the section of beach in front of his Malibu house off limits to others.
But a new law, passed as part of the state budget bill, should make a big difference. Beginning this week, for the first time the Coastal Commission has the authority to levy hefty fines on recalcitrant and combative property owners. In the most extreme cases, the fines could reach $15,000 a day for a maximum of five years.
The possibility of racking up such punitive fines is an important part of the legislation, written by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). A much more modest fine might make no impression on multimillionaires who can afford to pay it as the price of keeping their stretch of beach to themselves.
But few levies are expected to reach anything close to the highest amount. Various safeguards are written into the law to give violators the time needed to fix a problem — at a minimum, 30 days to do something as simple as unlock a gate to public stairs. In more complicated cases involving actual construction, more time would be allotted, as long as the property owner is cooperating.
It's important to understand that despite the complaints of property rights advocates, all of these landowners and homeowners knew or should have known when they bought their shoreline property that they were obligated to provide coastal access, often as part of an agreement that allowed them to get a coastal building permit. Geffen finally reached an agreement with the commission in 2007, some 24 years after he first promised to provide a passageway to the beach.