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Can't reach the beach? Turf war on Malibu's coast

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2002


One California guidebook calls this beach-side community of 13,000, sprawled along 27 miles of coastline, "garage doors of the rich and famous."

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It's a populist resentment nurtured over generations by those who find the pedestrian view far too pedestrian. Here, along one of California's most spectacular stretches, beach pilgrims are greeted by the back views of Hollywood homes – the mansions of Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn, Robert Redford, and others.

The guidebook jibe reflects decades of cheek-by-jowl home building that largely prevents access to beaches – which, by law, are public.

Now, in a series of court cases that will clarify the issue of public access to California beaches – and be closely watched across the US and in Europe – environmentalists, local officials, and homeowners are duking it out. Several observers say the cases may end up in the US Supreme Court. Beyond the clash of homeowners and visitors, there are environmental, health, safety, and social-justice concerns.

"The California coast belongs to all people, not just entertainment moguls and rich movie stars," says Robert Garcia, director of the city project for the Center for Law in the Public Interest. The city of Malibu, he points out, is 88.5 percent non-Hispanic white, and 25 percent of households have incomes over $200,000; Los Angeles, in contrast, is 31 percent white, with only 3.5 percent of household incomes over $200,000. "This is very much a case of the people of Malibu not wanting other people to use their beaches," says Mr. Garcia.

The current spate of court fights stretches from Malibu to Mendocino, several hundred miles north. All have their genesis in a 1972 citizens' initiative (Proposition 40) that reaffirmed a state law claiming beaches as public space, and created a new agency – the California Coastal Commission – to guarantee access along the 1,160-mile coastline.

One of the commission's primary tools has been requiring homeowners seeking building permits to donate easements. These options to develop (OTDs) allow for strips of public right-of-way that can be opened by government agencies or environmental groups willing to pay for upkeep.

With time running out on many of these OTDs, groups that have formed to open a few of the paths are incurring the wrath – and legal recourse – of local homeowners.

The highest profile case at the moment concerns David Geffen, the "G" in SKG Studios, formed in 1996 by Mr. Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The California Coastal Commission authorized a local environmental group, Access for All, to pick up the option on a strip next to Geffen's beachfront property. But Geffen is taking the group to court on procedural and other grounds.

"We feel that there have been no studies of public safety, environmental impact, or traffic in selecting this site for an access," says Geffen spokesman Andy Spahn.

Though he acknowledges a "general, across-the-board support for the notion of public access," Mr. Spahn questions the motives of Access for All in selecting his high-profile client. And he wonders whether such a small group can maintain the path: Spahn says "Access" has only three members, though Steve Hoye, the group's head, claims three board members, eight advisory activists, and 100 volunteers.

The City of Malibu has joined Geffen, citing concerns about safety and management.