They stand shoulder to shoulder, oceanfront homes in the heart of Malibu, turning their backs on the clamor of Pacific Coast Highway and effectively walling off miles of beach from the public.
On the ocean side, decks and balconies unfurl toward the rosy glow of the setting sun. Kayaks and catamarans lie unsecured on the sand. Owners and their guests stroll the solitary strand, pant legs rolled up, cocktails in hand.
Few places are more exclusive than this section of coast between Big Rock and the Malibu Pier. There are only two places where the public can reach the water through the nearly unbroken phalanx of homes. And those spots are more than three miles apart.
Even for people willing to walk in from these distant access points, there are precious few places where it is legal to spread a towel or unfold a beach chair.
Now this de facto private playground is under siege, in a clash of interests that pits private property rights against California’s coastal access law.
In a struggle that is playing out up and down the coast, this stretch represents Omaha Beach to those trying to secure public access.
“It’s just like Normandy in 1944,” said Norbert Dall, who is pushing for an unimpeded trail along California’s 1,120-mile coastline. “If we don’t take this beach, the forces of privatization will take the whole coast.”
On one side are the California Coastal Commission, the Sierra Club and assorted coastal activists. Dug in on the beach are at least 100 homeowners, among them producer David Geffen, billionaire businessman Eli Broad and Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of the former Los Angeles mayor. Many are prepared to use their influence and money to protect property rights and privacy.
The logistics are complicated, the battle lines not always easy to follow as residents accuse one another of side deals that shift the threat of access from one end of the beach to another.
At the same time, these beach dwellers say they are often wrongly maligned as elitists because they happen to own high-priced homes, said Jodi Siegler, president of the 55-member La Costa Beach Homeowners Assn.
An unsympathetic public, she said, dismisses the residents as whiny rich folks, rather than recognizing their very real fears about safety, trash and sanitation on beaches without lifeguards or public toilets.
Too often she said, the attitude is: “So what if the public has to take a leak against the wall of your house.”
The proprietary passions and politics around this issue can be surprising, given the myriad liberal causes embraced by so many Malibu residents connected to the entertainment industry.
“Some of the best, most liberal people in Malibu turned their backs on me over this issue,” said Steve Hoye, a former head of the Malibu Democratic Club and now a champion of open beaches. “They are all my friends. But their No. 1 issue is private property rights. They don’t want people coming in.”
Nearly 30 years ago, voters overwhelmingly approved the California Coastal Act, which asserts that “development shall not interfere with the public’s right of access to the sea.”
Today the Coastal Commission, and its sister agency the Coastal Conservancy, are still working to open up nearly 1,300 points of access along the increasingly developed coast.
Most of these access ways run parallel to the shore along the sand and rarely stir controversy. But about 150 are perpendicular to the coast, connecting the nearest road to the beach. These are the ones that rile up the locals.
Along the stretch between Big Rock and the Malibu Pier, state officials and nonprofit groups want to open as many as nine passageways to the beach, allowing the public to slip between the multimillion-dollar homes that line Pacific Coast Highway.
Each of these public easements--usually 5 to 9 feet wide--was promised by property owners decades ago in exchange for Coastal Commission permits to build or remodel homes along the shoreline.
Yet none of the easements, along Carbon, La Costa and Las Flores beaches, has been opened, because of government inaction and opposition from the residents.
Nor should they be, say many homeowners, who have have blocked them with concrete walls, wrought-iron gates and, in one instance, a tennis court.
Some residents fear for their security. David Geffen once had to shoo away intruders who found their way into the living room of his seaside home. There is an unused walkway route, blocked by a wooden gate, along the edge of his property.
Homeowners say opening these pathways between homes would be irresponsible, if not unsafe, because there are no parking lots along this busy section of PCH.
For the moment, such opposition is concentrated on stopping the state from opening an 80-foot section of La Costa Beach. It’s a rare spot along the coast where there is no development. Access is blocked by a chain-link fence.
Homeowners have filed two lawsuits to keep it blocked and, so far, have prevailed. They persuaded a judge that the Coastal Commission erred in allowing Broad, Daly Riordan and television magnate Haim Saban to circumvent a coastal building restriction in return for buying and donating the $1-million oceanfront property to the public.
Hazards for Vehicles and Pedestrians Feared
The deal invalidated by the judge had allowed the trio to block public views of the ocean when they built their beachfront mansions.
Todd Sloan, an attorney for the Malibu La Costa Owners Assn., said opening the 80-foot lot as a public beach would create a hazard for pedestrians and automobiles. Locals call that stretch of highway “dead man’s curve,” he said.
Sloan also said beach-goers could find themselves marooned if they lingered after sunset, when beach access ways are closed.
What would happen, he asked, “if they lock the gate and someone is down there at sunset. Where are they going to go? The beach is rocky at both ends. Are they going to have to knock on someone’s door to get out?”
Sara Wan, chairwoman of the Coastal Commission, calls such concerns “disingenuous” from a group that simply wants “a private beach in front of their homes.”
Wan, whose home is on a nearby hillside, agrees that Pacific Coast Highway is dangerous. But an access way with an accompanying sidewalk wouldn’t be any more dangerous, she said, than the nearby entrance to the private La Costa Beach Club--a place she was once asked to leave by members who objected to her position on the access issue.
The Coastal Commission has appealed the lawsuit, and Wan predicts that the agency will ultimately prevail.
Government moves very slowly on these matters, she said. She laments that Southern California, unlike many places farther north, has yet to attract nonprofit groups to take responsibility for opening and maintaining coastal easements.
Apparently, that’s about to change. Several environmental and nonprofit groups are gearing up to take over these dormant public easements from the government and open them. They are permitted to do so, providing they assume legal liability, pick up the trash and perform other maintenance chores.
The Sierra Club, said Executive Director Carl Pope, is looking for a nonprofit partner to adopt a number of easements. Pope said the Sierra Club doesn’t want to take legal possession of them but is willing to provide volunteers from among its 185,000 California members to pick up trash and perform other maintenance chores.
“We will be spending more intensive and focused effort on coastal access, because we think it’s a serious problem,” he said.
Meanwhile, some property owners are willing to pay handsomely to halt the opening of pathways across their land.
Former MGM Chairman Frank Mancuso and his neighbor Donahue Wildman have volunteered to subsidize a program to bus kids to other beaches, in return for preventing the opening of an access way between their properties in western Malibu.
There is a local precedent for what they want to do. In 1991, state officials allowed producer Blake Edwards and actress Julie Andrews to avoid a walkway across their property by contributing $338,000 for the future construction of a long stairway to the beach. The stairway was supposed to go down the property now owned by Mancuso and Wildman. It has never been built.
The struggle over public access to Malibu’s 27 miles of coastline dates back more than a century.
May Rindge, an eccentric widow, hired armed, mounted guards to patrol the boundaries of Rancho Malibu for nearly 30 years until the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925 forced her to open her land to Pacific Coast Highway.
To pay off her legal bills, Rindge sold beach lots to the famous “Movie Colony,” near Malibu Lagoon. That community continues its tradition of guards and gates to protect the privacy of movie stars and to keep a bit of coastal paradise to itself.
State Voters Heartily Endorsed Coastal Act
Today, along Broad Beach in western Malibu, many homeowners jealously guard their patch of dry sand, posting “No Trespassing” signs and hiring beach patrols. Their signs say their property stretches to a point that was once considered the mean high tide line but now is deep under water.
Everything on the seaward side of the mean high tide line is owned by the public. But that line is ever-shifting, as beach sand ebbs and flows with the waves and currents.
Curtis Fossum, senior staff counsel to the State Lands Commission, said the claims of owners on Broad Beach have never been challenged in court. The tide line has not been officially surveyed since the 1920s, he said.
In many other states, shoreline property owners restrict access to vast areas of beach, leaving the masses to crowd onto designated public beaches.
Activists say that isn’t the way the coast is supposed to be in California, a state where voters enthusiastically embraced the Coastal Act to preserve the state’s most magnificent natural asset for everyone to enjoy.
“It breaks my heart that we are not making any headway on this issue,” said Ellen Stern Harris, the “mother” of the Coastal Act who brought together the drafters of the 1972 ballot proposition. “I continue to pray for a tsunami, so we can get a fresh start.”
Harris, 72, of Beverly Hills, recently updated her will.
“If there is something left over, after my children have been looked after,” she said, “I want to leave it to help acquire access to the beach.”
Earlier installments of this series are available at https://www.latimes.com/reflections2001