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The People’s Shoreline

Any Angelenos who show up to sun and swim at the newly accessible stretch of Malibu shoreline fronting David Geffen’s multimillion-dollar manse will have Steve Hoye to thank for their SPF-slathered pleasure. The 54-year-old activist and audio-book narrator (the Topanga resident did the honors on “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” among others) took on the music mogul over access rights to his gated stretch of surf and sand. After a nearly three-year-long court battle, with the city of Malibu weighing in on Geffen’s side, the DreamWorks honcho gave up the coast last month and handed over the keys. Now Hoye’s nonprofit group, Access for All, is readying L.A.'s newest beach for the summertime throngs. Here, the comandante of the beach liberation front discusses what it’s like to fight city hall and win.

We’ve all heard it: The beaches belong to everyone. But it’s not that simple, is it? Give us the easy version.

The people of California own the land from the mean high tide line seaward. It’s translated as the “wet sand.” In return for permits to build on beachfronts, property owners make an “offer to dedicate” [allow a public easement on the property] recorded at the county recorder’s office. The recorded offer “lives” for 21 years. If someone “accepts” it--a municipality, a county or a nonprofit organization--[the “offer”] becomes an easement--the right to pass over someone’s land. Vertical easements go from the nearest public road, usually Pacific Coast Highway, to the water.

A vertical easement gets you from PCH to the water, but you still can’t put your towel down.

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That’s where lateral easements come into play. Lateral easements go from the mean high-tide line to the property. At Mr. Geffen’s house, we hold the vertical and three lateral easements. We have a 225-foot stretch of public beach with 20 to 40 feet above the mean high tide line. It’s about 40 feet shy of the width of the property, and you can’t go within 10 feet of his house.

How did you get involved in access rights?

There was an article in the L.A. Times in 1995 about “offers to dedicate” that were due to expire because nobody was picking them up, including some in Malibu and Mendocino County. And that made me angry. Laguna Beach has no problem picking up their offers. County of Santa Barbara picked up 98. I believe you have an obligation to allow the people of Los Angeles to go to the beach in the best places. Malibu tries to funnel them into two big beaches, Zuma and Surfrider.

How do beaches come to be closed if they’re owned by everyone?

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People were able to fence off the property between their house and somebody else’s next door. In the last 10 to 15 years, people have been razing the houses, amalgamating lots and building big houses. That’s the way it is in Malibu. It’s not that way in Orange County, [and] in portions of San Diego and Santa Barbara counties. And in a large chunk of these areas, they don’t allow building on the beach itself. Usually it’s on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway. In Orange County, they build the streets perpendicular to the beach, but the beach is usually open.

How far will a property owner go to keep the public off the beach near their home?

Broad Beach homeowners have hired guys on ATVs who force [beachgoers] to sit within the chains of the access way. Somebody on La Costa Beach planted a tree smack in the middle of the easement. If somebody wanted to open that easement, they’d have to kill a beautiful mature tree.

Did you pick on David Geffen to get media attention?

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No. We picked on Mr. Geffen because he had a particularly wonderful set of easements. One of the laterals and the vertical were due to expire in November 2004.

If the Geffen easement wasn’t there, could anyone get to that stretch of beach?

There is one easement open about a mile up the coast. But toward Santa Monica, you can’t get in for 4.

Easement-access beaches have no lifeguards, phones or bathrooms. What happens if somebody drowns or gets mugged?

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I carry liability insurance, because I’m using undeveloped property for public benefit. But lifeguards, bathrooms, parking, public safety are the issues that Malibu and the homeowners complain about. Well, that’s just rubbish. On Broad Beach, where there have been two [access ways] open for 20 years, there have been no reported incidents. It’s not about parking, not about restrooms, not about lifeguards. It’s about privilege--picking public land and believing that it’s your own.

If you had a gazillion-dollar house on the ocean, would you like people partying in front of it?

Partying? I’ve never seen a lot of parties on Broad Beach. I live in Topanga next to the state park. As a homeowner I have rights, but because of my proximity to those things, I have responsibilities too.

What is your group’s purpose and how are you financed?

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The mission of the organization is to accept easements to facilitate the public’s access to its land. We’ve found ways that will allow the public to safeguard its rights. We run on a shoestring. I have volunteers. My attorney has been working on a “we’ll recoup at the end of the enchilada” kind of way, and we’ve been working hand in glove with the attorney general’s office.

Are you in any danger of being awarded the keys to Malibu?

I don’t think I’m very popular there. I get calls from people who call me a Communist and things like that. I was president of the Democratic Club, and [Malibu is] a pretty liberal place, usually voting 65% Democratic, but even some of my best volunteers in those days were adamantly opposed to this. I think it’s got a racial and a class basis. There are a lot of really good folks on the land side of PCH who’d love the opportunity to get to the beach.

We take it you don’t plan to rest on your laurels.

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We’re hoping this victory can get homeowners to talk to us instead of fighting. Hollister Ranch, a big plot in Santa Barbara County with 136 parcels of approximately 100 acres each, is in our sights. Twelve of the best beaches in Santa Barbara. There’s a guardhouse. There’s one road in, and only people buying these huge parcels are allowed in. Smack dab in the middle of it, there’s an easement.

Are you a role model for other public-access activists?

People look at what’s going on here and are taking up the struggle. There’s an organization in Texas called Texas Open Beach Advocates. I talked to a guy in Florida. I got a call from somebody in Hawaii about developers fencing off traditional paths. It’s a growing thing. It’s in the Magna Carta in England, in Justinian’s code, that every citizen has the right to get to the river. I like to think of it as a minor civil right of people to get to the water. In California, where 60% of the people are going to be living in proximity to the coast, we better get that clear.

If you found yourself face-to-face with David Geffen, what would you say?

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I’d like to say thanks.


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