The turf battles over Malibu’s oceanfront tend to be as predictable as the spring tides as property owners and beachgoers contest for control of the sand.
This year, the tussle over what is public and what is private has taken a surprising turn with property owners bringing in heavy equipment to scoop up tons of public beach and pile it onto their property.
The battlefront is again Broad Beach, where skip loaders have erected a massive ridge of sand between the ocean and the community of 108 beachfront homes that has been in settlement talks over public access issues with the California Coastal Commission.
Until now, the dispute has been largely over homeowners’ rights to put up private-property signs in the sand and employ security guards on all-terrain vehicles to shoo visitors off dry sand.
But the arrival of earthmoving machinery has raised a new array of issues.
On Wednesday, Coastal Commission officials ordered the homeowners association to immediately halt the use of heavy equipment that has been pushing wet sand from the state-owned intertidal zone up the beach toward the houses since June 1 without a state permit.
The commission’s staff, in a nine-page letter, explained that the un-permitted grading has harmed wildlife, including grunion, small fish that spawn on Southland beaches this time of year. The removal of sand also has lowered the profile of the public beach so that “public access is cut off by wave run-up and standing water,” the commission’s letter said.
Marshall Grossman, a Broad Beach homeowner and lawyer, said the intent was not to block public access, but simply to restore the sandy dunes in front of the homes that eroded during last winter’s storms.
“When that happens, homeowners bring their own sand back to the dunes or bring in replacement sand from the outside in order to restore the dune areas,” Grossman said. “It doesn’t interfere with public access at all because the dunes are simply restored to what they were.”
Grossman, a former coastal commissioner, said the work was done in accordance with a permit from Los Angeles County’s Department of Beaches and Harbors. He blamed some of the erosion on large storm drains that channel water from nearby hills and “blows out the dunes.”
Homeowners can’t expect any help from the government that created the problem, he said, so they have to help themselves. “Any sand being moved back is simply sand coming off the dunes in the first place,” he said.
The dispute over sand is only the latest chapter in a long-running clash over public access and the private-property rights of Broad Beach homeowners, including celebrities Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and Danny DeVito.
The commission’s staff intervened after beachgoers complained about earthmovers on the 1.1-mile stretch of beach that created a sand berm as high as 8 feet in places.
“The unmitigated nerve of this is staggering,” said Richard Menna, a kite-surfing instructor from the San Fernando Valley. He saw bulldozers on the beach while kite surfing Monday at nearby Zuma County Beach. “I know people who’ve gotten tickets for just picking up a few rocks on state beaches. There must be thousands of tons of sand taken from public property.”
Lisa Haage, the Coastal Commission’s chief of enforcement, said she was shocked by the land grab. She said she has been in nearly daily settlement talks with Grossman over removing the “Private Property, Do not Trespass” signs posted in the middle of the beach.
The commission, established decades ago to protect public beach access, demanded last July that homeowners remove the signs and discontinue motorized beach patrols. The commission has received more complaints from the public about mistreatment on Broad Beach than any place else along California’s 1,150-mile coastline.
The brouhaha at Broad Beach is different from skirmishes over public access at other beaches, such as the newly opened pathway a few miles down the coast at DreamWorks SKG co-founder David Geffen’s Malibu beach house. The dispute in that case was over a “vertical” easement, which is an access way across private property to allow the public to get from the nearest road to the shoreline.
By contrast, getting to Broad Beach is easy. Two county-owned pathways are clearly marked by chains, steering the public to the water.
The fight there, instead, has centered on the unmarked mean high tide line that separates private property from state tidelands, which are public. In addition, 52 of the 108 lots have “lateral” easements that run along the shore, often allowing the public to spread their towels on a 25-foot-wide strip of dry sand above the mean high tide.
The regrading, Haage said, has tossed Broad Beach into legal murky waters. Much of what was considered public beach is now underwater at high tide or subject to a constant run-up of waves that would make sunbathing and picnicking impossible.
“Either there is no public access, or the public access has now shifted onto their backyards and onto their decks,” Haage said. “I don’t think this was their intent. Ironically, our discussions have been about how to have public access without impinging on their privacy or having people right in their backyards.”
The letter issued Wednesday by the commission ordered an immediate halt to grading, and it informed Grossman and other homeowners that the board would seek a permanent “cease and desist” order and an order to restore the beach.
The grading, the letter said, “coincided with one of the first grunion runs of the seasons.... The eggs were very likely destroyed by your activity. More significant is the fact that the habitat was altered in a way that will certainly reduce the breeding success of grunion that continue to spawn on this beach.”
Karen Martin, a marine biology professor at Pepperdine University who has studied grunion at Broad Beach and elsewhere, said the wave action reflected from the berm probably would wash grunion eggs out of the sand before they were ready to hatch. “They probably wouldn’t survive if they are washed out too soon,” she said.
The commission letter also said the earthmovers destroyed the habitat of many sand-dwelling worms, crabs and insects that provide food for shorebirds.