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Public sand, but a private playground

Times Staff Writer

El Sol County Beach doesn’t show up on maps of Malibu. Its bluff-top access way remains locked away behind a rusted chain-link and barbed-wire fence plastered with no-trespassing signs. The sandy beach below is effectively walled off by private property and rocky points of land at either end.

As a result, a public strip of beach serves mostly as a private enclave for adjacent property owners, including Michael Eisner, former chief executive of Walt Disney Co., and Gregory J. Bonann, co-creator of the “Baywatch” television series.

This weekend marks the passing of another summer in which Los Angeles County officials failed to open a prime beach purchased 30 years ago with taxpayer dollars on the promise that it would be used “for public recreation in perpetuity.”

State officials have nudged the county over the years to ignore objections of the neighbors, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a needed public stairway to the beach below. The latest state grant of $700,000, intended in part to open El Sol Beach, was instead allocated by the county solely to improving access to Dan Blocker Beach down the coast.

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Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said neighborhood opposition didn’t figure into the county’s decision not to open the beach. “It’s an issue of money,” he said. The state money, he said, was better spent on a parking lot and improved access to Dan Blocker Beach than on building an expensive stairway down El Sol’s steep bluff face.

Yaroslavsky said he is a strong proponent of public access to beaches and has repeatedly stood up to El Sol’s neighbors who would like to purchase the property “to foreclose the possibility that it become publicly accessible.” In addition to rejecting several other offers for the land, he said, “we’ve told Eisner’s people -- I’ve told him personally -- that we are not going to sell it.”

But will El Sol ever be opened? “Ultimately,” Yaroslavsky said. “The only question is when are we going to do it.”

The saga of El Sol began in 1974, when the county applied for state park bond money to purchase the land for a public beach park, according to county records.

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“When improved it will provide an excellent location for swimming, sunbathing, surf fishing, surfing, scuba and skin diving and other water-related activities,” the application said.

Two years later, the county condemned 2.5 acres of private property, paying the owner $350,000 from state park bonds that were “conditioned on the county’s agreement to use the property for public recreation in perpetuity,” a memo states.

In 1980, the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors agreed to open and operate El Sol along with other public access ways in western Malibu. The state Coastal Conservancy awarded a $266,415 construction grant, including $101,473 for El Sol’s stairway.

Neighbors immediately mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to halt the opening, arguing that among other things, the public would despoil the fragile environment. The county Board of Supervisors postponed opening El Sol, with then-Supervisor Deane Dana citing concerns about operating costs.

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Even as the county failed to act, the state, which owned three other “pocket beaches,” moved forward and designated them as El Pescador, El Matador and La Piedra -- collectively called Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach.

But it took four years to open these beaches, as locals lobbied to halt the project, saying the beaches were unsafe for the public and that visitors would damage delicate marine and biological habitats. When the state began work on the site, vandals slashed tires, broke windshields and poured sand in gas tanks of construction vehicles and pushed a trailer and water truck over a cliff.

Initially the neighbors supported the beaches’ public purchase, said Don Neuwirth, who then managed the California Coastal Commission’s coastal access program, “because they didn’t want big ugly McMansions to go up, and then they rallied to make sure they weren’t developed as parks.”

The county, he says, has been more swayed than the state by neighborhood objections. “The county . . . was very sympathetic to the Malibuvians and would not open that beach. It still hasn’t.”

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In 1990, neighbors persuaded state and county officials to sell them the access road -- now gated -- that connects their properties and El Sol to Pacific Coast Highway. The county retained access rights to El Sol Beach “for parking, enhanced coastal access and public recreation.”

County records show that state officials offered an ever-increasing amount of money to build the staircase and pay for the opening and initial operation of El Sol. Each time, county officials said the state wasn’t offering enough money.

Meanwhile, neighbors continued to raise concerns about opening the property.

“We’ve made every possible overture including buying other land and trading it, a long-term lease and buying it outright. Nothing has worked,” said “Baywatch” co-creator Bonann in a 2004 interview.

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Bonann, who owns a house between Eisner’s property and El Sol, said at that time that the beach shouldn’t be opened because the hillside was unstable. “It’s not safe for anybody,” Bonann said. “It’s caving in right now and infested with rabbits.” He could not be reached for further comment.

By the mid-1990s, Eisner had begun snapping up oceanfront properties.

Eventually, he bought five parcels near El Sol through an entity called The Rust Trust. Most of the properties had homes or other structures on them, and he set out on an ambitious project to rebuild or renovate the structures into a Mediterranean compound of houses with two-toned tile roofs, and even an underground elevator and tunnel to the beach.

The project dragged on with zoning and permitting battles, records show. Eisner sued the California Coastal Commission and five years later settled, gaining some concessions but also agreeing to pay $115,000 to the state’s Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to help purchase other Malibu property or restore coastal habitat damaged by development.

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In 1999, Eisner and his representatives learned of the potential opening of El Sol Beach and began making inquiries, a spokesman said.

Eisner’s longtime lawyer, Irwin E. Russell of Beverly Hills, wrote a letter on behalf of The Rust Trust and other neighbors, saying, “We are very concerned that the adverse impacts to the local community will far outweigh the limited value for recreational use of this particular property.”

“The area available for parking is very small; parking on PCH will create safety problems,” Russell wrote. “Moreover, the beach is very difficult to access because of the height of the bluff and steepness of its face, and the construction of a path to the beach will environmentally degrade the natural coastal beauty.”

Eisner, through a spokesman, denied he was involved in efforts to purchase El Sol and declined to comment further.

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Russell issued a statement saying the trust merely “raised issues the county should consider with respect to the development. We did not and do not oppose prudent development of the site. The decision as to when and how is obviously a matter for the county.”

Eisner’s interest raised red flags in county offices, according to internal memos, e-mails and current and former officials.

Joe Chesler, a longtime county employee who recently retired from the Department of Beaches and Harbors, attributes the county’s inaction on opening the beach to “a lack of political will” in the face of such powerful opposition.

“There wasn’t the political will to move forward with it,” Chesler said. “The department was unwilling to overcome the political pressure not to do anything on the site. The supervisor was not that interested in seeing the neighborhood change, despite the benefit to the public from public access.”

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The sandy cove of El Sol, meanwhile, remains accessible only to immediate neighbors and intrepid beach walkers willing to make the 20-minute trek at low tide, scrambling between algae-slick rocks and onrushing waves.

“It’s one of the last little secret spots,” Bonann said.

ken.weiss@latimes.com


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