D-Day in Malibu: a battle for the beach
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.