Everybody knows this beach story: The rich and powerful who own property along Malibu’s 27-mile coastline battle to keep the public away from the sand, surf and sunshine that fronts their houses. (Think David Geffen and his endless lawsuits to keep the access way closed next to his Carbon Beach spread.) Then higher powers — our public representatives — battle back to enforce the law: The coastline belongs to all Californians, and we have a right to beach access.
But what happens when our public representatives are the ones who are blocking our way to the ocean?
Welcome to El Sol County Beach — or not. Los Angeles County bought a small but beautiful stretch of the public-private cove between Nicholas Canyon County Beach and El Pescador State Beach in 1974 “for public recreation in perpetuity.” But El Sol still has not been opened to the public. 1974. Nixon resigned that year. The price of gas skyrocketed to 55 cents a gallon. Jimmy Fallon was born.
Travel down the coast from El Sol, and you’ll find Dan Blocker Beach, which the county Department of Beaches and Harbors has been in charge of since 1979. It’s a 11/2-mile beach, but you won’t find an official access path on the downcoast half (you can scramble down the rocks if you want), and the upcoast half is fenced off completely.
Keep going down the coast, and you’ll see a public stairway to Big Rock Beach that the county closed for repairs in 2002 and has yet to re-open.
In our megalopolis, the beach is one of our most beloved public spaces, and the Malibu coast adds up to more than a third of the beachfront in L.A. County. It’s the closest place to set down a towel for a great many valley dwellers. Imagine the frustration, too, of Malibuites who live just across PCH from a beach they can see but can’t easily get to.
There are a meager 18 public access ways on the 20 miles of Malibu coast that are lined with private property (the state standard calls for at least five access points per mile).
At El Sol, there’s a private road down to the beach, and former Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner, among others, lives on the other side of the locked gate. The county has promised many times to build a stairway to El Sol. Eisner and his neighbors have put up a fight every time. And every promise has died away.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In the early 1980s, the California state park system fought back against neighbors’ objections and relentless counter-moves, which included lawsuits and sabotage of construction vehicles, to build stairways to three similar bluffside beaches near El Sol. It took four years.
Over the last 20 years, other state and local agencies — the Coastal Commission, the Coastal Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority — have waded through lawsuits and neighbor objections to buy and open new beaches and access ways. Right now, these agencies are trying to deliver more than a dozen new access points. In these same 20 years, the county opened nothing at all — and took away beach access when it closed the Big Rock stairway.
Since the 1970s, the state has also given the county grant after grant to build the El Sol stairway, and has suggested that the county submit a proposal for the state to help fund the repairs on Big Rock. The county diverted the latest grant for El Sol supposedly to open Dan Blocker, where, at last, in 2014, it unveiled instead a “scenic viewpoint” — with no beach access — that’s really a fee parking lot with a restroom.
To be fair, the county has owned and operated half a dozen all-public beaches in Malibu — including the famous Surfrider and Zuma — since the 1940s. It readily took charge of the first dozen Malibu beach access ways that opened in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and continues to manage them.
Yet as private residents have intensified the battles against public access, the county has proved unwilling to fight the big fights on our behalf.
It’s immensely frustrating when homeowners stand in the way of public access to the beaches we all own. It’s worse when our own public representatives do the same.
Making a beach accessible on this storied coast takes heart. It takes persistence, fierce advocacy and political will. If the county doesn’t have that, then it may be time for it to hand over its inaccessible coastal lands in Malibu to the state. Unless we want to gaze at our beautiful beaches through fences for another 41 years.
Jenny Price is a writer and co-creator of the Our Malibu Beaches mobile phone app ourmalibubeaches.com.