This Sand Is Your Sand, People

As a California native, I can't help myself. Summer arrives, bringing dizzy days of sun-blasted heat, and I can't wait to sniff cool salt air and dive into a wave.

But there's trouble once again along the exclusive shores of Malibu, and if it keeps up, it might be time to resurrect my plans for Sand Aid, the concert to free the beaches for one and all.

No, David Geffen is not up to his old tricks. He's one of the good guys now, having finally opened the gates next to his Carbon Beach compound last year so the hoi polloi can enjoy their God-given right to frolic in the surf. What a mensch, that Geffen, and I'm not just saying that because he's trying to buy my newspaper.

The first flare-up of the season actually occurred farther west, on Amarillo Beach, where a sunbather, out for a day of relaxation with his wife and 10-year-old daughter, ended up in custody after a call from an angry homeowner.

This got the attention of Access for All's Steve Hoye, who was horrified to learn that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department plans to encourage property owners to make citizen's arrests this year on fabled shores that are home to some of the world's richest and most famous people.

Like me, Hoye envisioned movie stars and moguls hoofing across golden sand to make flying tackles of greased sunbathers. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, so let's begin at the beginning, back in May.

A Beverlywood couple named Jean Philippe Chabassier and his wife, Catherine Deschamp, along with their daughter, love a fine day at a nice Malibu beach, and they've been regulars for years. This time they chose a spot along Malibu Road, using the public accessway to Amarillo Beach.

As regulars, they know public beach from private and know that they have a right to the area beneath the mean high tide line. It's a confusing concept and the line is not fixed, but essentially, if you're on wet sand, you're legal.

You're legal on dry sand, too, if the homeowner has traded public access to the California Coastal Commission for the right to remodel a home, although it's not always easy to know where that is, and signs posted by homeowners are sometimes intentionally misleading.

Chabassier, a photographer and screenwriter, said there were signs on this particular beach saying "private," but he and his wife, a teacher, took their place and quietly enjoyed themselves. He was reading and his wife was napping when a man called out from the balcony of the home behind them.

"He said, 'This is a private beach, you have to leave. You are bothering me,' " says Chabassier, whose wife woke up and responded.

"We know where we are," she said, "and we're not bothering you, you're bothering us."

If they didn't move, the homeowner snapped at them, he was calling the Sheriff's Department.

Go ahead, the couple said. And minutes later, an L.A. County sheriff's deputy stood in the same spot on the balcony.

"He said, 'Hey, dude, I need to talk to you. Come up here,' " says Chabassier, who told the officer he wasn't doing anything wrong and didn't see why he had to move.

"He got his handcuffs and said, 'If you're not coming right away, I'm arresting you.' "

Chabassier and his wife ended up on the street with the deputy, who they say was stunningly misinformed about beach access.

"He said ... 'You don't have the right to sit anywhere. You're allowed to walk in front of a house. You can't sit. You can't stop.' Catherine and I argued with him, 'No, that's not the law.' And he said, 'I want you to go inside the police car.' "

Chabassier called the Sheriff's Department on his cellphone to report what was happening and says the deputy tussled with him over the phone.

"He was twisting my right arm in back, then he grabbed my other arm. I've never been arrested, and he was saying something about my fingers: 'Interlace your fingers; otherwise I'm going to break them.' "

He said the deputy then lifted him off the ground and ordered him into the squad car, and Chabassier decided to stop resisting.

"My daughter was crying, 'Papa, papa, papa.' "

And then, saying only that he had a more important call, the deputy released Chabassier and drove away.

I drove out to the scene with Hoye and spoke to a neighbor who said he saw the trio on the beach and thought they were on public space, not private. When we knocked on the door of the man who had shooed away the Chabassier family, an employee answered by intercom to say Elliot Megdal, a shopping center developer, could be reached at his Beverly Hills home. He spends weekends in Malibu.

I wonder if he's got a place in the Palisades to cut the drive in half.

I left a message and Megdal returned the call.

"I understood there's an area that is private and there are areas that are public, and I was of the opinion he was in a private area," Megdal said. "I just assumed."

He assumed?

Folks, I think we've got a new location for the Sand Aid concert. Maybe we should have one at Megdal Beach and another at the old Marion Davies estate in Santa Monica, where a haughty group of high-rollers -- which includes a studio executive -- is trying to block development of a public beach club.

I asked Megdal if he knew the law regarding mean high tide, and he said he learned something about it when he built the house, but he was not sure exactly where that line is.

"I don't know one way or another," he said when I asked if he could be certain the family was on private property.

Then why call the police?

"I wouldn't have done it," he said, "if the guy hadn't flipped me off."

What is this, junior high?

Chabassier and his wife deny that either of them made such a gesture, and they're still in a lather about the way the homeowner and the deputy teamed up to bully them off the beach and ruin a perfectly good day. They also say that because Megdal's home was remodeled in return for a lateral beach easement, they could have been much closer to his house and still have been legal.

Capt. Tom Martin of the Sheriff's Department's Malibu/Calabasas station told me he apologized to Chabassier by phone.

"I'm dealing administratively with the deputy that was involved in that," Martin said. "We're doing an administrative investigation."

That's nice, but I've already done one. I'd advise keeping that particular deputy, Wayne Watts, six miles east of the nearest high tide line until further notice.

Now what about this citizen's arrest nonsense? Are homeowners really going to be encouraged to become amateur beach cops?

Not exactly, Martin said. But it's hard for deputies to determine where public beach ends and private beach begins. If homeowners know, they'll be told of their right to make a "private person's arrest."

What?

That's a knuckle-headed recipe for disaster.

Hoye says records are available regarding property lines, and he'd be happy to provide deputies with the details. But to be honest, I can understand why Martin would rather not have his deputies be the arbiters of disputes about mean high tide and lateral easements. Do we really want cops essentially serving as private security guards for beach barons?

As long as visitors aren't dumping trash, climbing on decks and whizzing on plants, they ought to be left alone. Public access to the coast has long been a protected and cherished ideal, and I'm reminded of a line from the late Ellen Stern Harris, the mother of the 1972 California Coastal Act.

"If you are going to live in the neighborhood of a public attraction, don't be surprised if the public comes."

And if homeowners keep calling the police, don't be surprised if thousands storm the beach for Sand Aid 2006. Enjoy your summer and be sure to check this space for concert times and ticket details.

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at

latimes.com/lopez.

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