Breaching the Great Wall of Malibu

Patt morrison's e-mail address is

Suddenly, it was as if I was inside David Geffen’s brain.

I had spent only five minutes in the parking spot I had lucked into on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, but already I felt proprietary about it. I wanted to bask there all day, serene in my sense of possession as other drivers slowed and stared and envied me my good fortune.

And that was just a parking space. Imagine living -- as the billionaire producer Geffen does -- in one of those Malibu beach houses, the ones behind walls and gates the color of adobe and stone and oyster and sand. In places along the 1,150 miles of the California coast -- and Malibu is one of them -- there is the public beach and there is the public highway, and between them is a miles-long Great Wall of private property. The law says tideland beaches -- from the water up to the mean high-tide line, and in some places a little higher -- are open to the public. But having a public beach with no reasonable public access is like having a freeway with ramps installed only every 50 miles.

So after a battle of epic length and cost, the double gates alongside one bulwark of Malibu’s Great Wall -- Geffen’s beach compound -- will open as a public walkway to the public sand. Access for All, the nonprofit group that has adopted the walkway, celebrates with a “shorts and champagne” dedication Thursday; the path itself opens on Memorial Day.


After lounging for a while in my fabulous parking spot on Monday, I strolled to Geffen’s place and spoke to a man laboring on the roof alongside a closed-circuit security camera: Was this the walkway about to be opened to the beach?

He looked down. “You realize,” he growled, “that this is still private property?”

Isn’t that the motto of the city of Malibu?

In 1983, Geffen, like many California homeowners before and since, promised public beach access in exchange for permits to add, remodel, build up or tear down. A hundred or so of these promised paths never opened -- one homeowner built his tennis court across the intended route of the walkway across his land. And some, including Geffen, evidently hoped their 21-year promise might just expire because, in movie terms, no public or nonprofit group had picked up the option -- that is, taken on responsibility for maintaining the path, which was part of the Coastal Commission’s deal with property owners.


Geffen was almost home pathway-free. His option would soon expire. Malibu, Los Angeles County, even the state all went cheap and chicken and refused to do anything to open the pathways. Then Access for All stepped up to do the right thing. Geffen (among others) went to court. It got complicated, it got ugly, it got expensive: In settling the suit, Geffen forked over $300,000 in legal fees to the other side. (He was looking at $1,000-a-day fines building up like snow in Buffalo.)

His side had its points. “The public” is a splendid concept, but “people” can sometimes be a pain. Griffith Park after a sunny weekend can look like a landfill. Once, strangers walked off the beach and into Geffen’s living room. The Rindge family, which owned more than 20 miles of coastline 100 or so years ago, lost its Malibu house when trespassers burned it down.

Access for All pledges that the Geffen Commemorative Walkway is the first of many ribbon-cuttings, and it’s probably right. Yet to the residents of Malibu’s Millionaires’ Row, I’ll say this: One option may remain open to keep the public off the public beaches.

Tell the public the truth. You and I know why so many houses right on the beach have swimming pools: Because that lovely ocean water is a foul chemical and biological sump. Malibu, City of Septic Tanks, sometimes leaks into the ocean. And a few Malibutians have even been caught piping their crud directly into the sea.

Embrace another landmark California initiative, Proposition 65, the 1986 toxics-alert measure. Take down those “No Trespassing” signs and put up notices listing the ingredients in that noxious Pacific stew. Motor oil. Cooking oil. Fabric softener. Bug killer. Dirty-diaper bacteria. No one will want to get anywhere near it.