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On Broad Beach, slim progress on restoring sand

Time was that Malibu's celebrity-studded Broad Beach lived up to its name. Not anymore.

In recent years, punishing winter storms and high tides have swept away much of the 1.1-mile oceanfront lined with the multimillion-dollar getaways of such notables as Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman, Pierce Brosnan and businessman-philanthropist Patrick Soon-Shiong.

To protect their seaside showplaces, residents have piled sandbags and built a massive emergency rock wall. Now, under orders from state coastal officials, they are fighting against time to seek a more permanent solution — permanent being relative in an era of rising seas and extreme weather.

They have spent millions of dollars on attorneys, engineers and environmental consultants who have scoured the coast from Mexico to Canada for a mountain of sand that could be dredged and moved to restore the beach to its original 100-foot to 150-foot width.

"The [wall] is perilously close to certain homes," said Kenneth A. Ehrlich, an attorney for the homeowners. "The homes are certainly in danger. [And] there's a bigger issue that no one seems to focus on: There's no beach right now that anyone can enjoy."

Residents contend that their motives are pure: They want to protect their homes, but they also plan to restore dunes and create an expansive public beach, all at their own expense.

The project, which appears to be the first privately funded effort of its kind, has proved far more complex than residents or regulators had imagined. As a result, residents say, they have gotten hung up on bureaucratic shoals. Manhattan Beach blocked their proposal to buy South Bay sand. Now, they have homed in on Los Angeles-owned sand from the bottom of the sea off Dockweiler Beach.

The city has yet to decide on the matter, but the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors has objected, saying that the Broad Beach project would deplete reserves that might be needed later to replenish other public beaches eroded by rising sea levels.

A decade ago, the sandy sanctuary just northwest of Zuma County Beach was the setting for regular wrangles over access. Broad Beach homeowners erected "No Trespassing" signs and hired security guards on four-wheel ATVs. Nonresident sunbathers and picnickers complained to the California Coastal Commission that the sentries harassed them and shooed them away from public areas.

Homeowners, for their part, argued that patrols were necessary to keep people from defecating and urinating, riding horses and walking dogs on their properties.

In 2005, the surf battle took a stunning turn when Broad Beach's 108 property owners hired heavy-equipment operators to scoop up tons of wet sand from the public beach and make a berm on their properties. California Coastal Commission officials ordered a halt to the work, saying the unpermitted grading had harmed marine life and reduced the public beach.

California's access law lends itself to confusion and conflict. In Oregon and Hawaii, beaches are public to the first line of vegetation. California, by contrast, guarantees public access only seaward of the mean high tide line — in other words, on damp sand. The Broad Beach situation is complicated by a patchwork of lateral public easements that property owners have granted in exchange for construction permits.

Further confounding matters is the array of agencies with jurisdiction over Malibu coastal waters, including the California Coastal Commission, the California State Lands Commission and the city of Malibu.

As Broad Beach has dwindled, the issue has become less about keeping the public off private property and more about saving the private property from ruin. Residents have rejected one possible solution — moving dozens of septic systems farther inland — as being too costly and, in some cases, unfeasible.

Conditions grew dire in the 2008-09 storm season as water churned ever closer to homes. The city of Malibu granted homeowners emergency permits to pile up sandbags for protection. Some homeowners spent as much as $60,000 on sandbags, only to see them disintegrate in the pounding waves.

Three years ago, after storm-driven tides damaged foundations and threatened to unearth seaside septic systems, the coastal commission allowed residents to build a $4-million emergency rock wall. Workers fashioned the 4,100-foot-long structure from 36,000 tons of boulders, many of them lifted by cranes over houses.

Spray occasionally splashes over the wall, and rebar is exposed in spots, posing a hazard to bathers. At high tide, waves wash over the lowest steps of the two stairways that lead over the rock wall to the beach, and strands of kelp drape over the railings.

Steve Levitan, co-creator of the TV series "Modern Family," recalls years past, when his family could leisurely stroll along the beach. Now, he said, "surfers can't get out to the good surf spots, and the homeowners can't get there, either." He must time his walks to avoid high tide. "A number of times we've had to cut up and take the street home," he said.

As a condition of granting the emergency rock wall permit, the coastal commission required Broad Beach residents to come up with a stabilization plan to be implemented by 2015. The residents' preference would be to leave the rock wall in place and use imported sand to re-create the dune system atop it and to expand the beach.

To date, homeowners say, they have spent more than $5 million of their $20-million fund preparing scientific studies and getting approvals from half a dozen different agencies, each with its own rules and regulations. They have yet to complete a formal proposal for the coastal and state lands commissions. If they keep spending at the current rate, they say, they will exhaust their funds before they can start the project.

"We have faced a bureaucratic nightmare in attempting to accomplish this project," said Marshall Grossman, a lawyer with a retreat on Broad Beach. "One would think we were attempting to build high-rise condos on a public beach."

Even if Broad Beach property owners secure the necessary sand, big questions remain for coastal officials, who say sea walls affect habitats and limit the amount of beach available for public recreation. "As sea level rises," said Charles Lester, the coastal commission's executive director, "it's only going to get more challenging to figure how to deal with that."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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