One of California's priciest beachfronts may become a little less exclusive after a judge sided with state coastal regulators fighting to build a public pathway next to an oceanfront Malibu mansion.
In a ruling made public this week Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant upheld a 2009 California Coastal Commission order telling Lisette Ackerberg to clear the way for a public walkway to Carbon Beach along the edge of her property.
The decision also revealed a private settlement between Ackerberg and Access for All, a nonprofit group that works to secure access to public beaches. In a deal that enraged coastal regulators, the nonprofit group agreed to abandon plans to open a pathway through her property in exchange for $250,000 in payments and attorneys' fees.
The Ackerberg compound is on Malibu's Carbon Beach, a stretch of coastline where the rich and famous have long resisted attempts to open public pathways alongside their multimillion-dollar homes.
The Ackerberg mansion, which includes a swimming pool and tennis court and extends over two lots, is about half a mile up the coast from music mogul David Geffen's beachfront compound. In 2005, Geffen handed over the keys to a walkway along his property after a protracted dispute, allowing some visitors access to the sand for the first time.
Coastal Commission officials say that a development permit from the 1980s requires Ackerberg to offer a 10-foot-wide easement for public access. The state agency didn't take action to open it to the public until 2003, when it authorized the nonprofit group Access for All to build and oversee the walkway.
After the group found large rocks, a 9-foot-high wall, a concrete slab, a generator, light posts, landscaping and other items blocking the area, the state notified Ackerberg in 2005 that they had to be removed.
Ackerberg rebuffed the action, saying that the state should force Los Angeles County to build a different pathway promised just up the coast. When the Coastal Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to force her to clear the way in 2009, she filed suit to overturn it.
State coastal officials have argued that their long-standing policy is to maximize coastal access, not trade one potential pathway for another.
The judge agreed, ruling that no matter how much Ackerberg argues the county-owned pathway is better, "the public is entitled to both."
Ackerberg's attorney, Diane Abbitt, said the state has gone out of its way to target her client.
"There just seems to be an inherent unfairness in how the law is being applied," Abbitt said.
Without the state's knowledge, Access for All signed an unusual settlement with Ackerberg in 2009, court records show.
In exchange for a pledge of up to $250,000 and attorneys' fees, Access for All agreed not to pursue a pathway through Ackerberg's property. Instead, the group would work with her to sue Los Angeles County to open a different pathway next to the Malibu Outrigger condominiums, about 600 feet up the coast.
When Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas found out, he wrote to Access for All in disbelief.
"Please tell me it ain't so," Douglas wrote in an email quoted in the judge's ruling. "If true I am greatly disappointed and appalled. If true this is outrageous."
In an interview, Steve Hoye, the head of Access for All, insisted that his group did not agree to advocate for Ackerberg's interests. But a copy of the settlement shows they agreed to "jointly apply…to extinguish or terminate the Ackberger easement" once the nearby county-owned easement was opened.
Hoye said the settlement arose from frustration over delays by the state in opening the Ackerberg pathway. Funds from the settlement, he said, were to be used to open and maintain the county-owned pathway up the coast that had languished for years.
"She promised to actually get me some dough so I wouldn't have to rely on the useless Coastal Conservancy," he said.
The state Coastal Conservancy is expected to retake control of the Ackerberg easement from Hoye's group at a meeting next week.
An assortment of state and local agencies and nonprofit groups maintain more than 1,100 passageways to the shoreline statewide, roughly one for every mile of California coastline. But many easements required by the state as a condition of development have yet to be developed into pathways or fully opened to the public.