MALIBU, CALIF. — It's noon on a summer Saturday, and that means sun, sand - and tempers - are heating up. As Lonetta Kimpo and Bryan Sander get ready to unroll their bright towels, a red all-terrain vehicle zips into their path. "These postings tell you where the private property is," says the ATV's white-shirted rider, pointing to a "Do Not Trespass" sign. The writing continues: "Private property begins 30 ft. toward the ocean from this sign." But a few yards further, a different sign says the private property extends 18 feet from the sign.
"I don't get it," says Kimpo, a production manager. "I want to do the right thing, but where exactly is the line?"
With several court cases pending, all aimed at clarifying public access to state beaches abutting private property, conflicts among state environmentalists, homeowners, and beachgoers are coming to the fore. The problems - more people with less public space, and fewer staff to manage it - proliferate nationwide. But because of California's size and commitment to beach access, these cases get special scrutiny. And because of the state's spectacular shore and the legions of celebrities who dwell here, there's added drama, for lollers and luminaries alike.
The case of entertainment mogul David Geffen - now in the courts - was fodder for Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip last fall.
While that legal tangle unravels just south of here, the latest high-profile conflict centers on Broad Beach's homeowners association - a group that includes neighbors Danny DeVito, Steven Spielberg, and Dustin Hoffman. Taken together, the conflicts navigate clashing claims to Malibu's 27-mile ribbon of sand lined with multimillion-dollar homes, dotted with towels and swimsuits in every hue, and infused with the glamour of the rich and famous and the hope of catching one of them in a Speedo on a sprint toward the sea.
For many years, the association has posted signs delineating where beachgoers may stroll and sun. It's also provided on-site personnel - "police" to critics - to inform visitors of the rules. Now, environmental and social activists are spotlighting potential illegalities in such arrangements.
"The only problem with the signs and personnel on Broad Beach is that they are illegal," says Steve Hoye, president of Access for All, a nonprofit group fighting for more beach access. In California property law, the elusive public/private line is defined as the "mean high tide line" (MHTL for short) - an average and ever-shifting measure of high-tide water marks, as surveyed periodically over months and years.
Mr. Hoye says - and legal authorities agree - that only the State Lands Commission can survey the MHTL line. The homeowners association, he contends, is ineligible, though it calculates the line and marks results on its beach signs monthly.
But the State Lands Commission - which holds the titles to all navigable California waters, including three miles of ocean bed - says it simply lacks the resources to take on the task.
"We would have to send surveyors down day by day and we literally do not have the personnel to do that," says Paul Thayer of the state lands commission.
In the absence of that legal survey, homeowners say their own measures and patrols are vital to protect their private property. Many disdain simplistic press reports of shallow rich people tossing swimsuit-clad waifs off their beaches and hording the horizon for themselves.
"It's not just a matter of how comfortable we are with people wandering up close to our porches and beach chairs," says Randy Nauert, a longtime resident. "We have issues of safety and liability if someone gets hurt. We have to protect ourselves from those who would deface, steal, and use our front yards as bathrooms."
Observers say the Broad Beach situation would be clarified with legal action - and only with legal action - since it would likely take such a lawsuit to spur the pricey MHTL surveys. And the road to legal closure can be long: A case at nearby Lechuza Beach took years to litigate when a developer tried to build 18 oceanside homes. His plans were ultimately foiled when a survey - undertaken solely for the lawsuit - showed that they came too close to the MHTL.
Officials for the California Coastal Commission, formed by a citizen's initiative in 1972 to guarantee public access to the 1,160 mile coastline, are working towards a long-term plan for better easements and access - but are short on money for staff and potential lawsuits.
"The situation is confusing for both beachgoers and homeowners," admits the CCC's Linda Locklin, manager of the coastal-access program. "Only the State Lands Commission can determine the proper MHTL at Broad Beach - but neither they nor we have ever formally challenged the legality of the homeowners' signs and surveys."
Complicating the Broad Beach situation are easements donated by property owners designating parts of beaches for public use - often in exchange for approval of building permits. But no comprehensive map of the easements exists, and homeowners are often not forthcoming in making them public.
Activists say they're in the process of printing easement maps for public use - which would help confused beachgoers like Ms. Kimpo. But they add that many of the parcels are not contiguous - leaving islands of accessible beach surrounded by private property, and inaccessible by all but airlift or a herculean leap over yards or acres of sand.
"We are constantly looking into how we can obtain as many contiguous parcels as possible," says William Morrison, legislative liaison for the California State Lands Commission
In the absence of such clarity and court decisions, authorities say it's incumbent on homeowners and beachgoers to push for viable solutions. Usually, they say, the public loses for want of organization and a unified show of self-interest.
"This problem of public/private clashes over beach access is repeated countless times around the globe," says Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. "You have private-property owners trying to limit access to land that is rightfully the public's. The public has to know its rights and fight for them, and the government has to be willing to support those rights."
Mr. Douglas and activists like Hoye say that if local governments remain complacent - or grow hostile to public use - they'll improperly align themselves with private concerns. Californians, activists emphasize, spoke loudly in favor of access when they created the California Coastal Commission. "We often find that local government and local homeowners are not interested in the big picture," says Douglas.
Randy Nauert counters that Broad Beach doesn't not fit that analysis. "We have nothing against people on the beach," says Nauert. "We just don't want them on our private land."