Public Beach? Not So Fast

Times Staff Writer

Totuava Bay might be one of Laguna Beach's most popular beaches -- if one could only get there.

Backed by green hills, the picturesque cove with its broad, sandy shore is a public beach. But while a dozen private stairwells zigzag down the slope from bluff-top homes, the public's only access is at low tide over a rocky outcropping from the beach next door.

Beaches such as Totuava remain virtually off limits to the public up and down the state despite the California Coastal Commission's decades-long effort to help people reach the shore. Nearly 30 years after the commission began requiring oceanfront homeowners to provide public access, only 20% or 25 paths that lead from street to sand are open because local governments have been slow to take financial responsibility for them.

Confronted with this lack of progress, the commission plans to seek state funds to provide a long-term source of money for upkeep.

"We need maintenance money -- carrots to give local governments -- so that we can say: 'Hey, if you take this on, we'll pay for five to 10 years of maintenance,' " said Linda Locklin, manager of the commission's public-access program for the last 15 years.

Locklin estimated that relatively little money -- at a minimum $500,000 annually -- was needed to maintain as many as 25 more gates on a daily basis. The commission deserves those funds, she said, because "it's our mandate to provide and protect public access; we're saving the coast."

As an added enticement for cities and counties to open up access, the state Coastal Conservancy, the funding arm of the commission, often offers to pay to build the easements. But up and down the coast, not even an outright grant of several hundred thousand dollars proves to be enough, as local officials say they can't afford the luxury of providing beach access when money is needed for police, libraries, parks and other essential services.

The commission, which oversees development along California's 1,100-mile coastline, requires oceanfront property owners to provide access as a condition of building or remodeling. While most have surrendered land along the seaward edge of their property, some have been asked to provide paths across their property to enable the public to walk from the street to the shore. These paths are often the only means of access to public beaches behind wall-to-wall development -- and are often the focus of disputes.

The high-profile and long-running case of media mogul David Geffen -- who spent years in litigation with the commission over his promise to open the path next to his Malibu compound -- brought the issue into focus. Last spring he handed over the keys to his wooden gate to give people a way to reach Carbon Beach.

But the Geffen path opening is the exception. Most of these vertical easements throughout California have only been envisioned on paper, and many agreements have languished for more than two decades.

"I thought there'd be a queue at my door, with people saying, 'I want these easements,' when in fact I have time to be on the phone talking to you," said Locklin. "You're seeing monster houses, a wall of houses and fences going up. Where's the public access?"

The commission is not allowed to operate an easement. Instead, a local government agency, or, as a last resort, a nonprofit group, must agree to operate the path. Costs greatly fluctuate, depending on the geography.

Opening an access way can range from $10,000 to install fencing, signs and a gate, to $1.5 million to construct a stairway down a steep bluff. Maintenance costs can be as little a few hundred dollars annually to replace trash bags and pay someone to open and close the gate, to $350,000 to replace a stairway, such as the one in Pacifica, south of San Francisco, that was damaged when a bluff collapsed.

Oceanfront homes that were built before the commission was formed in 1976 are not required to provide public access. But commissioners said that most property owners will someday remodel their homes, and private sand will become a thing of the past.

Public beach includes everything seaward of the mean high-tide line, which changes throughout the year. This area typically is all of the wet sand and a few feet of dry shoreline.

Statewide, 125 vertical access ways have been set aside, cutting through housing that otherwise would have blocked the way to the beach. Originally, the pathways had to be opened within 21 years after being designated for public use, and dozens were in danger of expiring in 2002.

That year the state required the conservancy to take over liability for the paths. The conservancy, however, relies mainly on local governments to operate the paths because their trucks, rangers and public works departments do the work.

In Mendocino County, where split-rail fencing around rural developments often blocks access, supervisors said they don't have enough money to resurrect the county's parks district, let alone open and maintain access ways. Operating an easement means answering complaints about noise and trash, replacing signs, unlocking gates each morning and ensuring that people aren't on the paths after dark.

"Everything gets compared to something else: Is it library books or sheriff's [deputies]? Is it sheriff's [deputies] or animal control?" said Mendocino County Supervisor Kendall Smith. "The county would like to do many things it's just not in a financial position to do."

In 1996, the nonprofit Mendocino Land Trust stepped in and opened three vertical paths over the next eight years. The conservancy gave the trust a $240,000 grant in September to open about a dozen more, but the trust must shoulder the long-term maintenance costs.

In the early 1990s, Orange County began the application process for a $200,000 conservancy grant to design a stairway to Totuava Bay. But the county never followed through, said Harry Huggins, acquisition coordinator for the county Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division. After the county's 1994 bankruptcy, opening the access became a low priority, he said.

Yet, a few people manage to find a way to the scenic cove.

One recent afternoon, Ralitsa Georgieva, 31, and Nikolai Atanassov, 37, of San Francisco walked along the water, watching pelicans dive for fish. Georgieva said they had decided to visit after hearing a friend describe the cove as "the most beautiful beach in the whole world."

But to get there they had to wait for low tide and crawl over a mound of jagged, algae-covered rocks.

A stairway, one resident said, would undoubtedly bring more people to the beach.

"It would take away some of the magic of this place," Georgieva said. "More people means more pollution, more everything. Even if it's a little unfair, the beach doesn't just belong to the people who own these houses. I think it's a tricky thing."

Wes Roberts, 48, whose home overlooks Thousand Steps County Beach just south of Totuava Bay, said he wouldn't mind if the county waited to build a staircase. "But I'm just being greedy," Roberts said. "I totally agree that people have every right to the beach, no doubt about it."

In Malibu, Locklin recently stood in front of a chain-link fence and pointed toward a deserted beach a quarter mile to the south. That site is among the secluded coves that the public could enjoy if Los Angeles County or Malibu would open one of a dozen dedicated paths.

One Los Angeles County official said the county already operates three vertical easements across private property in Malibu and can't handle even one more.

"It's much more complicated than opening a passageway between a couple of houses," said Dusty Crane, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County's department of Beaches and Harbors. "Just having personnel open them in morning and close them at night is costly. We're just trying to deal with the ones we have."

Malibu doesn't have the money to maintain new access ways either, said Mayor Andy Stern. Only four out of 16 dedicated access ways between homes are open in the city.

"The city of Malibu welcomes the public to come," said Stern. "If the state wants to fund opening up access ways, we don't have a problem with that."

He said that the city of 13,000 residents plays host to roughly 14 million visitors a year to its shore, which features some of the region's most popular beaches, including Zuma and Surfrider, both county-operated beaches.

At newly accessible Carbon Beach in front of Geffen's house, Locklin shuffled her feet in the sand.

"This belongs to all of us," she said. Pointing to the houses she asked, "Do you see any curtains on the windows? When you see places where there are no curtains ... you know privacy was not an issue because nobody came here."

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