Not All Quiet on the Beachfront

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Wendy McCaw, the billionaire owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, has paid $460,000 in fines as part of a settlement over a beach access dispute with the California Coastal Commission.

The settlement, however, does not end McCaw’s legal battle to block public access to a 500-foot strip of beach below her 25-acre bluff-top estate.

McCaw continues to pursue a companion lawsuit to prevent Santa Barbara County from acquiring the easement it needs to open up the stretch of beach to the public. After losing in state courts, McCaw is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Such legal wrangling has increased in recent years as oceanfront homeowners try to renege on old promises, made in exchange for building permits, to allow public walkways across their properties.

The issue is surfacing now because as those decades-old legal commitments begin to expire, government officials and nonprofit groups are taking steps to adopt the walkways and open them to the public under the state Coastal Act. Property owners have responded with a flurry of lawsuits.

Entertainment mogul David Geffen last week sued a nonprofit group and state officials who have been pushing him to open his wooden gate so the public can reach the beach--via a sandy walkway he created in 1983 in return for permission to remodel his Malibu beach house.

Geffen asserts that the easement alongside his sprawling beach house should remain closed because most of Malibu’s Carbon Beach--now blocked by a phalanx of houses--lacks the parking, lifeguards and bathroom facilities necessary to accommodate the public. “Public safety is a significant issue,” said Steven A. Amerikaner, a Geffen attorney.

His lawsuit, which was jointly filed by the city of Malibu, comes a few weeks after the nonprofit group Access for All, brought in surveyors in preparation of opening the walkway during daylight hours under the supervision of a beach monitor.

“It’s not about parking or restrooms or public safety,” said Steve Hoye, president of Access for All. “It’s about protective privilege at an impenetrable beach. We listened to Mr. Geffen’s fears and addressed every one of them.”


Hoye said he was astounded by Malibu’s participation in Geffen’s lawsuit. “The city of Malibu says it’s for public beach access, but it’s for access someplace else.”

Amerikaner also represents property owners near Santa Barbara waging similar battles against the state’s coastal access law. Representing homeowners in the Hollister Ranch area and elsewhere, he helped draft a bill by state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) that would make it far more difficult to open such easements.

Most of the 1,300 unopened walkways are left over from the 1970s and ‘80s, when the Coastal Commission required them as a condition of permits allowing property owners to build on or near the beach.

The ability to designate the easements was curtailed in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission ruled it illegal to force such concessions from property owners. State and federal courts have upheld the validity of easements that were dedicated before the ruling.

That hasn’t stopped homeowners such as McCaw from filing legal challenges.

McCaw bought her estate in exclusive Hope Ranch just north of Santa Barbara in 1995. With the property, McCaw inherited from a previous owner an “offer to dedicate” a public easement in exchange for expanding the house. Such recorded easements are passed along with property to new owners.

When county officials sent McCaw notice that they were going to accept the 1983 offer and open the beach to the public, McCaw turned to her lawyers. She sued the county, asserting that government was exceeding its authority and “taking” her property without just compensation.


She also filed a formal notice to revoke the offer to dedicate the strip of dry sand as public access. That filing prompted the Coastal Commission to file a “cease and desist” order, which carries fines of $1,000 to $21,000 a day. McCaw, in turn, sued the commission. The commission countersued.

A Superior Court judge in San Francisco ruled against her, as did the Court of Appeal. As more than $20 million in potential fines accumulated, McCaw’s lawyers offered to settle. The commission’s lawyers agreed. Both sides dropped their lawsuits, McCaw removed her notice to revoke the offer to dedicate the easement and agreed to pay fines of $460,000. The commission will apply those fines toward the state’s intended purchase of the 746-acre Sea West Ranch near Cambria on the San Luis Obispo County coast.

“After working for many months on a resolution, I’m glad we finally settled this extremely expensive litigation by directing funds toward both the environment and the wildlife of California,” McCaw said in a statement.

Carter Phillips, one of McCaw’s lawyers, said the reason to settle was that the related suit against Santa Barbara County advances the same legal argument, but doesn’t carry steep fines. Phillips recently asked the Supreme Court to take the case.