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Spikes in the Sand : State, Las Tunas Landowners Argue Over Deteriorating Beach Walls

Times Staff Writer

Fay Singer learned about the spikes in the sand at Las Tunas Beach nearly nine years ago when contractors broke ground for her two-story house by the sea.

While visiting the construction site, Singer looked down at the excavation and spied a slab of sheet metal, encased in rust and topped by a sharpened point.

“I said, ‘That’s horrible, that’s dangerous. Take it out,’ ” she recalled last week. “The contractor said, ‘Oh no, that goes all the way out into the ocean. That’s what keeps the beach here.’ ”

A line of the metal chunks once had formed the core of a low concrete wall extending into the water from the rocky shore. Engineers call this type of sand trap a groin.

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Effective Sand Traps

Thirteen groins, ranging from 80 to 455 feet long, had been placed in 1929 at Las Tunas, a strip of eastern Malibu next to Topanga. The groins did their job. So much sand piled up that the walls were concealed for years.

But over the decades the concrete broke away. Salt water corroded the rows of exposed metal, carving the slabs into jagged teeth--some submerged under the sand and ocean, others barely visible at low tide.

Now the decayed structures are at the center of a bitter dispute, which has blossomed into a lawsuit filed by the state against 110 Las Tunas property owners and Title Insurance & Trust Co., a forerunner of Ticor Title Insurance Co. of California. The company sought the original state permits for the groins, as trustee for the property owners at the time.

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Everyone involved agrees the spikes are dangerous; at least two joggers have been injured by them.

Who Should Pay

The quarreling begins when the discussion turns to how to solve the problem and to the most touchy subject of all: Who should pay for the solution.

One option is to cut off the sharp spikes, which has been criticized as a temporary answer, because more jagged edges will form.

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Another is repair of the groins, which would expand the beach. A third is removing them altogether. Cost estimates range from tens of thousands of dollars to $1.5 million.

The outcome of the argument will decide more than the fate of the hazardous spikes.

Wide Ramifications

It could affect the future of the private dwellings and a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, the only direct link between Malibu and the western Los Angeles area. Some experts warn that the houses and the road could be washed away by angry winter waves if the groins are removed and the beach erodes.

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The debate’s result also will determine whether a state-owned beach will soon be quadrupled in size, providing more shoreline recreation space for the public.

The five western groins front what is now grandly called Las Tunas State Beach, though it is little more than a dirt parking lot, a lifeguard station and a steep drop to the Pacific.

The State Lands Commission wants to remove the five damaged groins, replace them with two extremely long “super groins” at the public beach and import fill to dump there.

Two Birds With One Stone

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“One, we take care of the hazard and two, you’d have a nice public beach area,” said David M. Hadly, a lands commission attorney. “It would be far enough out that you’d have a beach about four times what you’ve got now.”

Money for the project will be requested in the 1987-88 state budget, said Jim Trout, the commission’s assistant executive officer. The amount will depend upon “the participation in the project by the homeowners and the title company,” Trout said.

To the homeowners, an assorted group of entrepreneurs, artists and scientists, the complexities grow more frustrating every day.

“My husband calls the whole situation ‘a kick in the groin,’ ” said Singer. She laughed. “You can use that,” she added.

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No Joking Matter

But it’s really no joking matter to her. She believes the state has taken the dispute to court now because it hopes that the public portion of the beach can be widened.

“They want this big state beach, but they don’t want to pay; they want us to pay,” Singer said.

Craig Dummit, an attorney for 43 of the property owners--although not for Singer--agrees. “If that’s not the full motivation, it’s a major motivation,” Dummit said.

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If the widening proceeds, the private homes will be sandwiched between two attractive public beaches, Las Tunas State Beach to the west and Topanga State Beach to the east.

Limited Private Rights

The public currently has the right to walk across the private section of the beach near the water. And most of the homeowners’ building permits were issued with the requirement that they dedicate their beach, within 5 or 10 feet of their houses, for public use if a government agency ever wants to accept maintenance of the sand there.

Las Tunas Beach homeowners fought a similar beach widening plan in the 1970s, claiming in court that installation of the “super groins” at the public western section would keep sand from accumulating on their private shoreline, where the remaining eight groins have become less effective.

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If the state can force the repair of the eight eastern groins, the loss of sand to the private beach would no longer be an argument against the public beach, Dummit noted.

“And then,” he said, “that would create a wide beach in front of the homes for the public to walk upon between the two state beaches.”

Protecting the Cave

He said he has been telling his clients, “Even back in the days of the cavemen, if you had a really good cave, you had to keep fighting to protect it.”

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Deputy Atty. Gen. Ellyn S. Levinson, who is handling the state’s case, said she did not want to comment on the proposed widening of the public beach.

But, she said, “my great frustration with this is that we have a public hazard out there.”

In the late 1970s and 1980, Levinson represented the state in the case of the two injured joggers. In separate incidents, two women claimed they each impaled a foot on a hidden spike in front of Las Tunas resident Neal Castleman’s house.

Shark Bite

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“The last one said she thought sharks had bit her foot,” Levinson said.

Each woman sued the state, Castleman and Ticor. Each reached an out-of-court settlement in the $30,000 range, Castleman said. He said his homeowner’s insurance paid his share both times.

In 1982, the State Lands Commission placed blue and yellow signs on the beach with the message: “Danger. Jagged metal groins in sand and water.”

But the warnings do not offer enough protection to the public, Castleman said.

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‘Something Should Be Done’

“I watch people from my window run through there, totally oblivious to the sign,” he said. “They could still step on it. Something should be done.”

To Singer, the least expensive and most obvious answer is to seal the private beach away from the public.

“Everybody who lives here knows where the groins are,” she said. “It’s when you allow . . . access that the public is endangered.”

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Said Levinson: “Obviously, that’s unacceptable.”

Improving Access

The state has been working for years to improve public access to the 1,000-mile California beachfront. Less than half is currently available for general recreational use.

Last fall, the lands commission ordered the homeowners to resolve the dispute by removing the eight groins at the private beach.

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Owners of five houses spent $1,200 trying to take out the groin on their property, but were only partially successful.

The rest of the residents refused. A consultant, Rimmon Fay, had earlier advised against removal.

Vulnerable to Storms

“They’re already vulnerable to winter storms,” said Fay, a marine biologist and former state coastal commissioner.

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” . . . Those homes would be at greater jeopardy than they already are.”

By that time, the state was also asking a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to make Ticor repair or take out the groins.

The state suit alleged that Ticor should be held responsible because its permit for the groins had been issued on the condition that the company “faithfully maintain the structure” and “alter . . . or . . . remove the structure when deemed necessary by the chief of the Division of State Lands.”

However, James N. Laichas, Ticor senior vice president and chief claims counsel, said the responsibility for the groins should have been transferred with ownership of the property.

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Original Owners Dead

The original owners, who had Ticor obtain the permits as trustees, “are all deceased,” Laichas said. The last of the original owners sold their interest in the Las Tunas property “in the late ‘30s, possibly the early ‘40s,” he said.

The homeowners, however, say the groins are not mentioned in their deeds. Nevertheless, last month, the homeowners discovered that they had become defendants too.

They were served with court papers showing that the state now contends that, whether or not Ticor’s argument is valid, the current beach residents should help solve the problem because they have benefited from the sand trapped by the groins.

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Richard Stone, the Singers’ attorney, said he believes the state’s suit clouded the title of every home on Las Tunas Beach.

“Who would buy a property along there knowing that there’s pending litigation?” he said.


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